05/27/2016 2:20PM

Hovdey: Whittingham's reach prominent in his race


A racing writer does not want to spend too much time wallowing in the past, or else readers might think that writer is stuck there and never gets out much anymore.

Then again, Memorial Day comes with a built-in obligation to gaze upon history with an eye toward those who died fighting for the United States of America. From Los Angeles National Cemetery in West L.A. to Arlington National in Washington, the weekend will be filled with a chorus of remembrance and loss, of sacrifice, duty, and honor.

Fifty years ago, the U.S. was deepening its military involvement in Vietnam. More than 6,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines died in 1966 and will be among those memorialized this weekend.

Charlie Whittingham put in his time in uniform as a U.S. Marine (Second Division) and spent World War II fighting the Japanese in places like the Solomon Islands, among them Guadalcanal. In 1966 he was safely home, plying his trade as a Thoroughbred trainer and winning stakes races with horses named Saber Mountain, Title Game, Tumble Wind, and Drin.

Hollywood Park opened its turf course in 1967, and Whittingham was ready. Patriotic to a fault, the ex-Marine liked to celebrate Memorial Day by running a live one in the Hollywood Invitational Turf Handicap, as it used to be known during its early days. He would win it more often than not.

Whittingham won the race, which would eventually bear his name, in 1970 with Fiddle Isle and 1971 with Cougar II, then again in 1976 and 1978 with the brilliant Europeans Dahlia and Exceller. Exploded was a bit of a surprise for Whittingham in 1982, when he upset Lemhi Gold, but no one was shocked when he finished 1-2 in 1983 with Erins Isle and Exploded. Whittingham’s final victory in the Turf Handicap came in 1986 with Rivlia, a son of Dahlia.

On Sunday they will run the $200,000 Charles Whittingham Stakes at Santa Anita again at a mile and a quarter on firm turf. Whittingham died at age 86 in April of 1999 – 14 years before Hollywood Park gave up the ghost – but his DNA lingers in the game. Sunday’s field offers patented proof.

Blingo, who breaks from the rail in the 10-furlong grass event, is owned by Ann and Jerry Moss, the same Ann and Jerry Moss who owned the tempestuous black horse Ruhlmann in the early 1990s. Ruhlmann had a taste for human flesh, but Whittingham was able to tame him long enough to win the 1990 Santa Anita Handicap, beating eventual Horse of the Year Criminal Type in the process.

Montego Bay will try to win the Whittingham for Neil Drysdale, who has won the race four times since it was renamed in Charlie’s honor. Drysdale was Whittingham’s top assistant from 1970 to 1974, a period during which the Whittingham stable dished out champions Ack Ack, Turkish Trousers, and Cougar II.

Finnegans Wake, one of the West’s top turf horses last year, will try to get back in gear in the Whittingham for trainer Peter Miller after his decent comeback effort in the one-mile Thunder Road. Miller has been on his own long enough to be on his own hook, but he never forgets the lessons he learned grooming and traveling with Whittingham horses in the 1980s.

Richard Mandella, who sends Bal a Bali in the Whittingham, never worked for Whittingham, but that does not mean he wasn’t paying attention. Mandella asked for and got the same Barn 4 at Santa Anita from which Whittingham sent forth such champions as Sunday Silence, Ferdinand, Perrault, and Flawlessly. He even keeps a piece of Whittingham equipment with the famous “CW” logo in the shed row as a talisman.

Then comes Ron McAnally, whose connection to Whittingham was to honor him as a friend and colleague and beat him as often as possible with horses like John Henry, Tight Spot, Bayakoa, and Paseana. John Henry won the Hollywood Turf Handicap three times, each time turning back the best Whittingham could throw.

On Sunday McAnally will try to win the 2016 Whittingham with Quick Casablanca, very much the in-form animal of the California grass division. Fans should enjoy the sight of mature Thoroughbreds running long on the turf while they can, since this will be the last stakes race for these horses beyond one mile until the Eddie Read at Del Mar on July 17. Grass racing will end at Santa Anita in mid-June, when the course will be replaced.

Quick Casablanca has no complaints. The Chilean son of the Smart Strike stallion Until Sundown was third in the 10-furlong San Marcos and second in the 12-furlong San Luis Rey before winning the 15-furlong San Juan Capistrano in his last start.

“That was one of the most satisfying wins I’ve ever experienced,” said Dan Landers, McAnally’s assistant trainer. “This horse has gotten good right now, and Ronnie knows how to keep him good. We’ve been looking forward to the Whittingham since that race.”

This is the same Quick Casablanca who finished a close third in the 2014 running of the Whittingham. Then he was only 6, so he should be aged just about right. Being 8 didn’t hurt John Henry one bit when he won the same race in 1984.