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History Challenge: Charlie Wittingham
When Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham died in 1999, he was among the last of the generations of top-ranked American trainers who actually laid hands on every horse under their care.
Most of the conditioners heading the standings today maintain stables of horses at racing centers throughout the country and sometimes rarely see, let alone actually train on a day-to-day basis, many horses under their care. Assistant trainers handle the chores and get telephone instructions on the top horses.
Whittingham, who will be recognized Saturday when a Grade 1 turf race named for him will be run again at Hollywood Park, spent more than six decades in the sport. Known as “The Bald Eagle,” he began handling horses in the early years of the Depression – doing everything he could to earn a buck, from mucking stalls to training to working as a jockey’s agent.
At the time of his death, Whittingham’s accomplishments placed him among a selected few who could rightfully lay claim to the title of greatest American trainer of all time.
Test your knowledge of this famous trainer and the race named in his honor.
1. Whittingham died three days before the 1999 spring-summer meeting at Hollywood Park opened. The track quickly changed the name of its Grade 1 Hollywood Invitational Turf Handicap to the Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap.
The 12 runnings of the race since its name was changed have produced few winners of any prominence and no national champions.
Such was not the case with the first 12 runnings of the Hollywood Turf, inaugurated in 1969. Among the first dozen runnings of the race were no fewer than five winners now enshrined in racing’s Hall of Fame. Name them.
2. Whittingham obtained his trainer’s license in 1934, but for the next six years, he struggled to get horses who could run. That began to change when he met another future Hall of Fame trainer in 1940.
The two traveled the country – Whittingham training the horses and his newfound partner, an Argentina-born playboy, using his charm and wit to woo new owners. But when America went to war in 1941, Whittingham joined the Marines and put his training career on hold.
He rejoined his partner at the end of the war, and the two picked up on their successful ventures with horses. Name the partner.
3. Swaps, en route to being voted 1956 Horse of the Year, had an unbelievable meeting at Hollywood Park when he won five consecutive handicaps – breaking the world record in three, equaling the world record in another, and setting a track record in the other.
But in his first race at the Inglewood oval that year, Swaps lost by a head to this horse, who three years earlier had become Whittingham’s first stakes winner and first national champion. Name the horse.
4. Whittingham believed in bringing along horses slowly and not pushing them early in their careers. For a quarter-century – 1961-1985 – he did not start a horse in the Kentucky Derby.
In 1986, he became the oldest Derby-winning trainer when Ferdinand captured the roses. Three years later, Whittingham won the Derby and Preakness with Sunday Silence.
Who was Whittingham’s first Derby starter?
5. One of Whittingham’s two sons, Michael, began assisting his dad when he was 11 years old. After years working for his father and later his uncle, Michael struck out training on his own, at his dad’s urging.
It was not easy with a Hall of Fame parent still at the peak of his game, but Michael hooked up with Oak Cliff Stables, and the two had great success, including a victory in America’s richest stakes, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a race that his father to that point had not won. Name the Classic winner.
1. Five winners of the first 12 runnings of the Hollywood Turf Handicap – three of them trained by Charlie Whittingham – went on to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
The five were:
◗ 1969 – Fort Marcy, champion grass horse of 1967 and Horse of the Year, champion grass horse, and champion older horse of 1970;
◗ 1971 – Cougar II, champion grass horse of 1972;
◗ 1976 – Dahlia, champion grass horse of 1974;
◗ 1978 – Exceller, multiple graded stakes winner in the United States, France, England, and Canada; and
◗ 1980 – John Henry, Horse of the Year in 1981 and 1984, champion older horse in 1981, and champion grass horse in 1980, 1981, 1983, and 1984. (John Henry won the Hollywood Turf again in 1981 and 1984.)
Cougar II, Dahlia, and Exceller were each trained by Whittingham.
2. Whittingham returned from the war with a new wife, Peggy, and the desire to reconnect with his partner, Horatio Luro.
Luro, who had built a strong stable during the war that included the claim of Princequillo for $2,500, happily made Whittingham assistant trainer. (Princequillo retired with earnings of $96,550 and became one of the top sires and broodmare sires of all time.)
By the end of 1948, Luro told Whittingham it was time for him to go on his own. In future years, Whittingham would credit Luro with teaching him to have patience with horses – run them only when they’re ready. Luro’s oft-quoted line was, “Never squeeze the lemon dry.”
Dubbed “The Grand Senor,” Luro won the Kentucky Derby twice – with Decidedly in 1962 and Northern Dancer in 1964 (both of whom set track records in the Louisville classic).
3. When Whittingham struck out on his own as head trainer in 1949, it was Mary Elizabeth Tippett who gave him his biggest break when she hired him to train her Llangollen Farm racing stable.
Four years later, Llangollen gave the 40-year-old trainer his first stakes winner and first national champion with 2-year-old Porterhouse, a son of Endeavour II.
Porterhouse wrenched his back in his final start at age 2, the Pimlico Futurity. It was an injury that would plague him throughout his entire career. Despite his ailment, Porterhouse raced 70 times through age 7, winning stakes again at ages 4, 5, and 6.
In the 1956 Californian Stakes at Hollywood Park, 3-10 favorite Swaps held a comfortable three-length lead in the stretch when jockey Bill Shoemaker took a relaxed hold on the horse, allowing Porterhouse to get up in the final strides and nip him at the wire.
“Shoemaker admitted his mistake as soon as he was out of the saddle,” noted racing historian Joe Estes wrote.
4. While there was a great deal of truth to Whittingham’s penchant for not pushing horses early in their careers, his lack of participation in the Kentucky Derby also was due to bad luck with several potential Derby horses whom he likely would have started in the classic.
He was pointing his first champion, Porterhouse, to the Derby in 1954 when the horse was injured at Keeneland just weeks before the big race. Others like Saber Mountain in 1966, Tumble Wind in 1967, and Balzac in 1978 were each injured in Derby preps.
His first starter in the Louisville classic was Gone Fishin’ (eighth in 1958), and his next and last until Ferdinand in 1986 was Divine Comedy (ninth in 1960).
5. Michael Whittingham won back-to-back runnings of Santa Anita’s premier race for older females, the Grade 1 Santa Margarita Handicap, in 1982 and 1983 with Ack’s Secret and Marimbula, both owned by Oak Cliff.
In 1985, Michael trained another Oak Cliff star, Skywalker, to win the Santa Anita Derby. The colt went on to finish sixth in the Kentucky Derby.
The following year, Michael struck pay dirt when Skywalker, at 10-1, beat champions Turkoman and Precisionist to the wire to capture the third Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Charlie Whittingham won the BC Classic the following year with Ferdinand and in 1989 with Sunday Silence.