08/09/2012 12:00PM

Hall of Fame Q&A: Lin Wheeler on the late Robert Wheeler


Retired trainer is the son of the late Bob Wheeler, who was to be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame on Friday. He was interviewed by telephone earlier this week.

What was your reaction when you found out your father was finally getting into the Hall of Fame? I was really happy that he was finally in. I thought he should have gotten in a long time ago, but that’s neither here nor there now.

Are you going? My daughter Sherri is getting married this weekend, so I’m going to have to miss dad’s deal, but you’ve got to be there for your kids. My sister Sidney is going. She can substitute for me as someone who was close to him and knew him. I’m finally glad to see it happen, and I’m glad my sister will be there, and some of dad’s grandkids. My son Jeff is going. He thought the world of my dad. I want to spend time with my daughter. Her mom and I split when she was young, and I never got to see much of her.

What do you think your dad would say about this honor? He’d be thrilled. That kind of stuff never did excite him. He never cared much about articles in the paper or things like that. He’d duck some of the writers. There were a couple he got along with, like Oscar Otis and Kent Cochran. But others just wouldn’t get it right, and he’d stop talking to them. But he’d be proud of this. If he’s looking down, he’d be smiling.

What made your dad a Hall of Fame trainer? Personally, working with him and for him, being his assistant for many years, I thought he was one of the best horsemen I’ve ever been around. He could handle the greenest horse. He was exceptional with 2-year-olds and fillies. But what really made him good is that he was patient, especially with fillies and mares.

Who were the best horses you think he had? I was around most of the good ones. As far as colts, I’d have to say Tompion. He won the Hopeful and the Santa Anita Derby. Dotted Swiss won the Hollywood Gold Cup. Bug Brush – she was terrific. She was one of the best mares I’ve ever been around. She won the San Antonio and set a world record for a mile and an eighth, beating Hillsdale while giving him a pound on scale. She was an unbelievable mare − nothing to look at, but boy, could she run. She had that Nasrullah blood and was very temperamental. My dad was great with those kinds of horses. He got the best out of those kinds of mares. He had Miss Todd. She was an unbelievable sprinter. Silver Spoon. There were so many. Track Robbery. I had her, and I turned her over to him when I went to work for Bruce McNall. I couldn’t get much out of her. She won a couple races for me. But he got the best out of her. I worked for McNall as the general manager of Summa Stable. I was going to Europe. I’d keep my eyes on all the broodmares. Dad was doing all the training.”

Which horses did you admire? Old Pueblo, he was a great horse. Silver Spoon, Bug Brush. I didn’t get around the colts too much. I got along better with the fillies and mares.

Who were the trainers your dad admired? Like me, he respected the old guys, like Bill Finnegan, Jess Byrd. Farrell Jones, he and dad were pretty good friends. Red McDaniel. Ross Brinson and my dad were like brothers. He got my dad started.

Who were your dad’s favorite owners? His favorite of all was Ruken Jelks. He had Miss Todd and Old Pueblo. He had a ton of money, but you’d never know it. He owned half of Arizona. My dad met him through Ross Brinson.

What do you remember about first working for your dad? I started walking hots when I was 7 or 8. In my teens, I’d pony horses. In those days, you could get a license at that age. At 16, I got my trainer’s license. I went to work for my dad as an assistant. He had me take a bunch of horses to Golden Gate and Tanforan. There were only 30-day meets then. You’d run at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, then go up north to Bay Meadows, Golden Gate, and Tanforan. When I assisted my dad, those were the good old days. I was around a lot of good horses. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s at Santa Anita. You’d go down the shedrow, and every other horse was a stakes horse.

After working for Summa, you trained again, but you stopped almost 20 years ago. Why? When dad died, I kind of lost interest. He and I were so close. I quit a couple years after dad died. I could go to him and talk to him about problem horses. It was a lot of fun back then.

What did you do after that? Howard Grant, the old jockey, he and I are good friends, and he got me a job as a placing judge at Charles Town for five or six years. I had been a placing judge briefly in the 1960’s before I went back to train. After working at Charles Town, I went to work at Three Chimneys in Kentucky, foaling all the mares, working on the stallions. I always wanted to do that. I had done everything else. I did that for seven years, but I left after I got hurt.

Do you miss training? I do, but I’d never go back unless I had one good owner. I’m almost 70 now. I never liked having a public stable. I had a lot of private jobs, for McNall, for old man Lin Howard. When I had some horses for McNall, I had some horses for the Whitneys. Marylou was running things.

I understand you’ve had some health problems the past couple of years. How are you doing now? I was in and out of the hospital for about a year with a couple of problems, but now I’m home. I live about 30 minutes north of Fresno, on the way to Yosemite. I’ve been through hell and back, but if I get my strength back, I’ll play it by ear, but I’d like to see some of the old-timers at Del Mar.