04/11/2013 11:35AM

Jay Hovdey: Reflections on Whittingham's 100th birthday

Mike Marten
The late Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham's 100th birthday is Saturday.

There are more than a few reminders sprinkled around the Southern California racing landscape that Charlie Whittingham once was king. Hollywood Park, for as long as it lasts, has an accommodating eatery called Whittingham’s Pub and Deli overlooking the track. Del Mar offers the Whittingham Sports Pub, chock full of Charlie memorabilia. And anyone winding through the paddock gardens at Santa Anita Park eventually comes upon the imposing bust of Whittingham, rendered in bronze along with the likeness of Toby, his Australian sheppard, whose gaze is fixed upon his master with imporing, worshipful attention.

My favorite, though, is over there in Whittingham’s old Santa Anita barn number 4, occupied the last dozen years or so by Richard Mandella. On a wall at the head of the back row, next to the stall once occupied by Whittingham’s Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand, hangs a tack box adorned with a white “CW” monogram on rich hunter green, standing out from the array of dark brown Mandella “M’s.” The brass plate attached to the face of the box reads “In Memory of Charlie Whittingham.”

This Saturday marks the 100th anniversary of Whittingham’s birth, and for those who care to indulge, the memories will flow. Though he has been gone since April 1999, when leukemia took Whittingham at the age of 86, his imprint on the sport is so abiding that rarely a day goes by without some horseman somewhere finding reason to echo his name.

“It’s a privilege to be in this barn, but sometimes you get too busy with what’s right in front of you,” Mandella said. “Every time I walk by that box I’m reminded of the act we’re trying to follow. It can be intimidating if you let it. I prefer to think of it as inspiring.”

Whittingham earned his place on a pedestal, and not merely because of his plentiful achievements. After all, he is not the only trainer to have won three Eclipse Awards and seven national championships. Others, though not many, have trained 11 North American champions and had half a dozen of their horses elected to the Hall of Fame. And as far as that goes, Charlie Whittingham is but one of 92 Thoroughbred trainers enshrined in the hallowed Hall on Union Avenue in Saratoga Springs.

Why, then, does Whittingham’s name still haunt the game, even as the years of his accomplishments recede. I like to think that in many ways he represented the perfect 20th century synthesis of the sport’s unforgiving economics with its natural aesthetic appeal. His best horses became popular older horses, full grown and magnificent, able to cultivate loyal fans and sustain serious careers at the top of the game. Whittingham won those seven money championships − all of them without significant help from horses younger than 4 − because he could deliver on the promises made to high-rent patrons that it was better to let other barns make mistakes, run their horses too soon or too steep, and always be there in overwhelming force when the pot was full.

In application the theory looks like this:

If the nation’s richest summer race for older horses is right there in your own backyard, you find a way to win the Hollywood Gold Cup eight times in the 17 runnings between 1971 and 1987.  

If from out of the blue they offer a million-dollar race for older horses going 1 1/4 miles on grass, you step up to take three of the first 10 runnings of the Arlington Million with Perrault, Estrapade and Golden Pheasant.

If, after you’ve already won the Santa Anita Handicap six times between 1957 and 1985, they decide to more than double the purse for the 1986 running to $1.1 million, you make sure you win that one, too, with Greinton.

And if, in what could be called the twilight of your career, they create a 1 1/4-mile main track race for all comers worth a heady $3 million, you ignore the calendar and become the first trainer to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic twice, with Ferdinand in 1987 and Sunday Silence in 1989.

Charles Edward Whittingham was born at the home of his parents, the English immigrants Ned and Ellen Whittingham, in the Southern California town of Chula Vista on April 13, 1913. The Chula Vista of 1913 was a struggling agricultural community between San Diego and the Mexican border, which meant Ned Whittingham worked in the fields for the San Diego Land and Town Company. Or at least he did until he threw himself into San Diego Bay during a storm in February of 1914. A week later Ned Whittingham would have turned 41.

Family hardship required that Whittingham ended up being raised by in-laws. All the while he was in thrall to his older brother Joe, a budding racetracker at Old Caliente. Following Joe’s lead, Charlie bounced around bush tracks through the Great Depression, mooched free meals off Bing Crosby at Del Mar, lived by his wits as Horatio Luro’s running mate, and then, when duty called, survived the bloody early days of the battle for Guadalcanal.

When a horse fell on him as a kid Whittingham broke an elbow that never did heal straight. He had a tattoo of Man o’ War on his right shoulder long before be became a U.S. Marine. Well past 60 he would dare you to punch him in his rock-hard gut, or playfully crack your head with his granite skull, or numb your arm with a commando’s pinch to the side of your neck – all in the spirit of a good time and a vodka martini, or two. When, in his 80’s, he lost the sight in one eye to a botched cataract operation, he would greet your approach on his blind side with a knee squeeze that buckled the leg.

“Nothing wrong with my ears,” Charlie would say, too late to do you any good.

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He was known around the backstretch not only as the fabled “Bald Eagle,” but also as “The Pope” because, when the money was down, Charlie was next to infallible. Still, it is one of those bittersweet ironies that Whittingham became a household name in the wider world only when he finally won his two Kentucky Derbies, at age 73 and 76.

“If I’d known this was such a big deal I would’ve done it a long time ago,” Whittingham said during Ferdinand’s memorable spring.

Folks who knew Charlie well chalked it up as one of his better lines, putting it alongside “drinking in the day time ruins drinking at night,” or “I’m as confused as the little boy who lost his bubble gum in the chicken coop,” or “I taught him everything he knows, but I didn’t teach him everything I know.”

For those lucky enough to work at his side, Whittingham imparted pearls of great price. Joe Manzi went on to train a champion. Dick Lundy won a Travers and a Breeders’ Cup Mile. Charlie’s son Michael won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Rodney Rash won the Santa Anita Handicap. Neil Drysdale joined Whittingham in the Hall of Fame.

“One of his greatest attributes is being able to determine what a horse is capable of,” Drysdale said, while Whittingham was still alive. “He can visualize precisely what a horse is going to do later on, and therefore he can be very single-minded in going for that goal.”

Whittingham’s influence was pervasive, reaching well past the walls of his own stable. Gary Jones and Bobby Frankel veered away from the claiming world to follow Charlie’s lead. Shug McGaughey and Bill Mott watched Whittingham from afar and got the message loud and clear. Ron Ellis, Graham Motion, Mike Puype, Larry Jones, Ian Wilkes, Michael Matz, Tom Proctor, John Shirreffs – time spent in their presence leaves the notion that the Whittingham effect is neither gone nor forgotten.

By the mid-1980’s, the transplanted English trainer John Gosden was pretty much dogging Whittingham’s every step, learning by watching the master at work. Eventually Gosden was winning most of the races Charlie liked to win and sometimes beating a Whittingham horse when he did it. Then, toward the end of 1988, the California grapevine began to hum with the news that Gosden had accepted a private training job back in Great Britain.

“We were saddling horses in adjacent stalls at Santa Anita one afternoon,” Gosden said. “Charlie peers over his horse and says, ‘Heard you’re thinking about going home, John.’ ”

Gosden conceded it was true.

“Charlie didn’t miss a beat,” Gosden said. “ ‘Can I help you pack?’ ”

Gosden, who began the 2013 British racing season as reigning champion, paused this week to reflect on his mentor and friend.

“Charlie Whittingham set the template for pure horsemanship,” Gosden said. “His deep love and respect for the Thoroughbred were matched by his unparalleled knowledge and dedication to his profession. His birthday is a poignant and timely reminder of the great example that he set us all as a trainer and his uncanny ability to engage with people in the most natural and humorous manner. Boy, do we miss him!”

Though deeply competitive, with a collection of banged and bruised binoculars attesting to tough beats, Whittingham was at heart a man of serene equanimity who never let the highs get to high or the lows too low. Blame it on his tough beginnings, his experiences in war, or the awful fact that both his father, who he never knew, and his youngest son Taylor, upon whom he doted, took their own lives. Given that, it’s tough to go nuts over close photo or a quarter crack.

“Every time I get frustrated I always remember what Charlie would say,” veteran rider Joe Steiner said. “ ‘You shouldn’t be able to tell if a guy just lost a hundred grand by a nose, or just won a hundred grand by a nose.’ ”

In 1957, the year Whittingham won his first Santa Anita Handicap with Corn Husker and beat Round Table in the Californian with Social Climber, Frank Sinatra starred in “The Joker Is Wild.” The movie featured a song called “All the Way” and a line that went, “Who knows where the road will lead us? Only a fool would say.”

At the time Whittingham was halfway through his journey, and for the rest of his days “All the Way” was his favorite song. Whenever the spirit moved he’d croon it to Peggy, the love of his life, mother of Michael, Taylor and Charlene, and it was played when they laid Charlie to rest.

Sammy Cahn, who wrote “All the Way” with Jimmy Van Heusen, also would have turned 100 this year. We’ll go ahead and call that a happy coincidence. As a theme song Whittingham could have done a whole lot worse, for few have gone farther from more humble roots. Then again Charlie Whittingham always insisted he was destined to spend his life in racing. A century after that life began, it’s easy to understand why.

Charlie Whittingham

Inducted into National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame, 1974

Eclipse Awards
Outstanding trainer: 1971, 1982, 1989

National leader
Money won: 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1981, 1982

Champion horses
Porterhouse – 1953 2-year-old colt
Ack Ack – 1971 Horse of the Year, older horse, sprinter
Turkish Trousers – 1971 3-year-old female
Cougar II – 1972 turf horse
Perrault – 1982 male turf horse
Kennedy Road – 1983 Canadian Horse of the Year
Estrapade – 1986 female turf horse
Ferdinand – 1987 Horse of the Year, older horse
Sunday Silence – 1989 Horse of the Year, 3-year-old male
Miss Alleged – 1991 female turf horse
Flawlessly – 1992-1993 female turf horse

Hall of Fame horses
Ack Ack (1986)
Sunday Silence (1996)
Cougar II (2006)
Dahlia (1981)
Exceller (1999)
Flawlessly (2004)

Kentucky Derby wins
1986 – Ferdinand
1989 – Sunday Silence

Preakness wins
1989 – Sunday Silence

Breeders’ Cup wins
1987 Classic – Ferdinand
1989 Classic – Sunday Silence

Santa Anita Handicap wins
1957 – Corn Husker
1967 – Pretense
1971 – Ack Ack
1973 – Cougar II
1975 – Stardust Mel
1985 – Lord at War
1986 – Greinton
1993 – Sir Beaufort

Hollywood Gold Cup wins
1971 – Ack Ack
1972 -- Quack
1973 – Kennedy Road
1974 – Tree of Knowledge
1978 – Exceller
1982 – Perrault
1985 – Greinton
1987 – Ferdinand

San Juan Capistrano wins
1957 – Corn Husker
1959 – Royal Living
1970 – Fiddle Isle (dead heat)
1971 – Cougar II
1972 – Practicante
1975 – La Zanzara
1978 – Exceller
1981 – Obraztsovy
1983 – Erins Isle
1984 – Load the Cannons
1985 – Prince True
1986 – Dahar
1987 – Rosedale
1989 – Nasr El Arab