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Past the Seabiscuit Years and Still Galloping

August 24, 2003|MICHAEL T. JARVIS

At 93, Noble Threewitt still arrives at Santa Anita Race Track just after 4 each morning to train horses, just as he did when the track opened in 1934. In fact, Threewitt has attended the opening of every track in California, except the Bay Area's now-vanished Tanforan. Tanforan would later prove lucky for him, as nine of his horses won there on the same weekend in 1956. Threewitt has rubbed elbows with (and rubbed down the horses of) many a captain of industry and was a source for the best-selling book "Seabiscuit: An American Legend" by Laura Hillenbrand, which is now a movie. Threewitt lives in San Gabriel with Beryl, his wife of 70 years, and volunteers at the Santa Anita health clinic, open to Southern California track workers and their families. He also enjoys co-billing at the Noble Threewitt/Charlie Whittingham Lounge at Hollywood Park.

How did you start working with horses during the 1920s?

All the counties had fairs and horse racing. I grew up in Benton, Ill., and they had a nice track [where] a lot of horses would lay up until the spring. I got to hanging around out there and walking horses and galloping and riding at the fair. I rode a few races at the fairs and went to Kansas City and was a jockey. I was small.

Were you a good jockey?

I was bad. The last race I ever rode was in Kansas City. I rode him bad, and I told the owner, "Your horse really should have won, and I'm gonna quit." I'm a bad loser.

How did you come west?

I came out in a horse car, to Caliente, Mexico, in the summer of 1930. In those days they'd hook horse cars right onto the passenger trains. I told everybody I wanted to save my money and come back home. But I never did.

What was it like when Santa Anita opened in 1934?

Lord, people would come down here just in droves. Of course there was nothing going on in Los Angeles and California in those days. Santa Anita was about the only game in town. People came down from San Francisco by train for the races. All the men wore hats and women came dressed up.

How has Santa Anita changed?

When I came to Santa Anita, any trainer who had 20 or 25 horses was considered to have a big stable. They had a limit for a long time of 32 horses, and Santa Anita stayed by it. Now one trainer out here has 80 or 90 horses. Ten or 12 trainers have a good percentage of the horses on the racetrack. It's bad for racing. They don't give a little guy much chance.

What are your memories of working with Seabiscuit trainer Tom Smith?

In 1930-31 the owner George Adams always had two or three horses at Caliente. He always had the same groom, Tom Smith. He could do about anything. But he was a groom. He was in the same barn as trainer Harry Walters, who was training for John D. Spreckels III. They had a falling out. Spreckels had got acquainted with Tom, and he turned his horse over to him. Tom got a trainer's license and came up to Tanforan. I was training for George Giannini then, of the Bank of America Gianninis. He was with [Seabiscuit owner] Charlie Howard in my barn one morning when Howard met Tom. When Tom got Seabiscuit, the horse just got to running better. Horses do that sometimes.

Was there a secret to his success with Seabiscuit?

They had stories that Tom Smith just looked at the horse and said, "Oh, that's a good horse." But there is no such thing. He turned out to be a good horseman. Very, very quiet. We called him "Silent Tom."

You played a jockey in the 1935 film "Goin' to Town" with Mae West.

She was a wonderful woman. Boy, in that day and age, she was really considered risque, the way she dressed, and she talked out of the corner of her mouth. She was a character.

How did you meet your wife Beryl?

Naturally, we met on a racetrack, in Gresham, Ore., in the early 1930s. My wife's father was a trainer. She said I had to ask her father. He was a big Texan, very gruff. I finally got up enough nerve to go ask him. I just spit it out: "What would you say if I asked to marry your daughter?" He says, "Why are you asking me? If you made up your mind, you're going to do it anyway. But it won't last!"

After 70 years of marriage, do you have any advice for newlyweds?

No.

What's the secret of your longevity?

I used to smoke a long time ago. I used to drink a little, nothing to excess, but I quit that, too. I tell everybody I eat an apple every night before I go to bed.

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