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80 Isn't Enough : Retirement? That Isn't an Option for Whittingham

April 13, 1993|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Charlie Whittingham was asked if there would be any special celebration today, his 80th birthday.

"Just something at the house, with the family," Whittingham said. "Let's wait for the big party, when I turn 100."

Few doubt that the Hall of Fame trainer will reach the century mark.

"Is he slowing down?" said Rodney Rash, a former assistant who worked for Whittingham for more than 15 years. "He's just as sharp as ever. I know that I've got to get my tail out of bed pretty early to beat him to the track every morning."

Up at 3 a.m. daily in Sierra Madre, Whittingham arrives at Barn 4 at Santa Anita within an hour. Years ago, he bailed out after starting the only two vacations he has ever considered, one to the Bahamas and the other to Mexico, because he felt he might be needed back at the barn. And retirement has never been an option.

When asked about quitting while he is way ahead, Whittingham said: "What for? You see what happens to guys that retire, don't you? They die."

An eighth-grade dropout who grew up on a California ranch not far from the Mexican border, Whittingham worked most of the low-paying jobs around the Agua Caliente track in Tijuana as a teen-ager in the late 1920s. After working as a jockeys' agent, he took out a trainer's license in 1934 and wound up at Narragansett Park in Rhode Island with a one-horse stable in 1936.

In 1937, Whittingham met Bing Crosby shortly after the entertainer had opened Del Mar, and Crosby introduced him to Horatio Luro, the Argentine trainer who hired him as an assistant.

"Don't squeeze the lemon dry," was one of the first things Luro said to Whittingham about training, and the pupil never forgot what the master told him about patience with horses. Whittingham implemented the advice so well, in fact, that he was elected to the Hall of Fame at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1974, six years before Luro was enshrined.

Officially, Whittingham has won the Santa Anita Handicap 10 times, including this year's race with Sir Beaufort, but he had much to do with the preparations that led to Talon's victory for Luro in 1948.

"I train the owners at night," Luro used to say, "and Charlie trains the horses in the mornings."

Eddie Arcaro rode Talon to that Big 'Cap victory.

"Charlie's one of the great trainers," Arcaro said recently. "And I go back quite a ways, with the likes of Ben Jones, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons and Max Hirsch and many other great ones. I put Charlie right there with all of them."

Whittingham's apprenticeship with Luro was interrupted by 2 1/2 years with the Marines in the South Pacific during World War II. Whittingham suffered from malaria and his hair fell out. It has never grown back.

"I was kind of an odd-looking character around the tracks for a while," Whittingham said. "But then Yul Brynner and Telly Savalas came along, and people didn't think I was so bad at all."

Whittingham left Luro in 1949 to form a public stable. The first of his more than 600 stakes winners was Porterhouse, in a $30,000 race at Belmont Park in 1953. Porterhouse was voted best 2-year-old male that year, becoming the first in a list of champions that includes Ack Ack, Turkish Trousers, Cougar II, Perrault, Estrapade, Ferdinand, Sunday Silence and Flawlessly.

Ack Ack, Ferdinand and Sunday Silence won horse-of-the-year titles. Ack Ack, a sprinter who was coaxed into winning such 1 1/4-mile races as the Santa Anita Handicap and the Hollywood Gold Cup, was one of Whittingham's finest training jobs. His best horse, he now says, was Sunday Silence, who won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Breeders' Cup Classic in 1989.

Whittingham won Eclipse Awards as best trainer in 1971 and '82, and in 1986, at 73, he became the oldest conditioner to win the Kentucky Derby when Bill Shoemaker, at 54, rode Ferdinand to victory. Whittingham broke that record three years later, winning the Derby with Sunday Silence three weeks after his 76th birthday and later being voted his third Eclipse Award.

Those Derby victories brought on a new wave of popularity and respect for Whittingham, who because of his reluctance to push young horses hadn't sent a 3-year-old to Churchill Downs since 1960.

"Hell," Whittingham said to trainer Wayne Lukas after Ferdinand won the Derby, "if I'd known it was such a big deal, I would have won it sooner."

Whittingham has no Derby horse this year, but his 3-year-olds, including some promising sons of Ferdinand, might make an impact later in the season. With Flawlessly, last year's female grass champion, not yet embarked on a title defense, the star of the stable is Sir Beaufort, a formerly hard-to-manage 6-year-old.

Sir Beaufort won this year's Santa Anita Handicap at 11-1.

"He surprised the public, but he didn't surprise me," Whittingham said. "He's never run a bad race. He has pretty good speed and he's improved with age. His consistency reminds me a lot of John Henry."

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