Charlie Whittingham watched the water cascading off his barn roof at Santa Anita Wednesday morning and allowed himself a little smile.
"Ack Ack weather," said the Hall of Fame trainer, his blue eyes twinkling at the thought.
Whittingham's memory was stirred not only by the rain, which would transform any race track into an Ack Ack expressway, but also by the recent death of the 1971 horse of the year.
Ack Ack was Whittingham's first horse of the year. He has since added Ferdinand in 1987 and Sunday Silence in 1989. But in many respects, Ack Ack represents the trainer's finest work, the embodiment of Whittingham's ability to realize a thoroughbred's potential.
At Santa Anita in the winter of 1971 Ack Ack, then 5, established himself as more than simply a top-notch sprinter-miler. After finishing second in the six-furlong Palos Verdes Handicap on Jan. 2, the son of Battle Joined reeled off four consecutive stakes victories at the Santa Anita meeting and then three more at Hollywood Park.
Before Sunday Silence came along, Ack Ack was the horse by which Whittingham measured all others. Invariably, they fell short. Ack Ack had it all: the speed to set track records at 5 1/2 furlongs and the stamina to win major races going 1 1/4 miles. He won on turf, hard dirt and all manner of mud. And he could carry weight, lots of weight.
At 3, Ack Ack was the Housebuster of his era. He set a Churchill Downs record for one mile in winning the 1969 Derby Trial. His owner, the ultraconservative Capt. Harry Guggenheim, skipped the Kentucky Derby, saying it was too much too soon for his precocious colt. Ack Ack later won the Withers Stakes and the Arlington Classic, both at one mile.
Frank Bonsal trained Ack Ack in 1969, but Guggenheim shipped the colt to Whittingham in 1970 to campaign in California. Whittingham took one look at Ack Ack's sore shin and had him pin-fired, a common heat treatment to facilitate healing. Not long after that, he touched base with Guggenheim.
"About that shin, Charlie," Guggenheim said. "I don't believe in firing them."
"Too late, Captain," Whittingham replied. "I fired it and he's doing fine."
Whittingham spent 1970 getting to know Ack Ack. He ran the colt five times, all in sprints, and won four, including the Autumn Days Handicap on the turf at Santa Anita and the Los Angeles Handicap at Hollywood Park on the disqualification of Right or Wrong. Ack Ack also set a Del Mar track record for 5 1/2 furlongs that stands.
Guggenheim died on Jan. 22, 1971, six days after Ack Ack beat Jungle Savage in the San Carlos Handicap. The horse was purchased from the estate for $500,000 by oilman Buddy Fogelson and his wife, actress Greer Garson.
After that, Ack Ack reeled off front-running victories in the San Pasqual, the San Antonio and the Santa Anita Handicap, carrying 130 pounds to a 1 1/2-length victory over stablemate Cougar. During the early summer, Ack Ack won under 130 pounds in the Hollywood Express, 130 in the American Handicap and 134 in the Hollywood Gold Cup, the final start of his career.
"I really couldn't do much about the weight they gave him," Whittingham said. "They were putting a lot of weight on all the good horses back then. It wouldn't have been any less if we'd taken him to New York.
"But he could handle it. He was built real wide across the rear. A lot of thick muscle. And he got that weight moving right from the start, which made it easier on him than if he was a come-from-behind type of horse, starting and stopping all the time."
In the 1972 American Racing Manual, Charles Hatton praised Ack Ack as a "Protean performer" who brought to mind the 1953 horse of the year, Tom Fool.
"As an entertainer, Ack Ack had great verve and was very dashing," Hatton wrote. "Winning at every pole is winning the hard way, and it is estimated a horse must be five pounds the best to achieve this."
Ack Ack came perilously close to being a posthumous horse of the year. While training at Del Mar in August of 1971, he was stricken with a severe case of colic. His intestines were badly impacted, a condition that required round-the-clock attention. Among those standing watch was Neil Drysdale, Whittingham's assistant at the time and now a successful trainer.
By the time Ack Ack recovered, it was too late to send him to New York for the prestigious Woodward Stakes on Oct. 2. So Whittingham did the next best thing. He dispatched Cougar, who finished five lengths ahead of the best the East Coast had to offer. Unfortunately, Cougar was disqualified on a controversial interference call.
"That convinced them back there that Ack Ack should be horse of the year," Whittingham said. "Ack Ack had beaten Cougar out here, so if Cougar could handle their horses so easy, it didn't take a genius to figure out the best horse."
Horse Racing Notes