09/22/2010 1:52PM

Living up to his name till the end

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It was business as usual this week at the Noble Threewitt Health Clinic at Santa Anita Park, where the men and women who work in the racetrack stables of Southern California can bring their families to receive the kind of bedrock medical care expected of a civilized society.

There was sadness, yes, and the occasional heartfelt sigh at the sight of a photograph or the passing flash of a memory of the man whose name is attached to the clinic. Noble Threewitt, sounding like a character straight out of Charles Dickens, passed gently onto whatever’s next last week, just a few miles down the road, after a life that had reached 99 1/2 years.

Just about all of them, as Noble would regularly testify, were pretty darn good, especially the 77 of those years he spent married to Beryl, the love of his life, who died earlier this year. Beryl’s father, a hard nut of a horseman himself, said it would never last.

Though Threewitt was rendered blind these last several years and enfeebled, it would be a mistake to think that today’s concerns in the horse racing world struck him as particularly unique. During the course of his lifetime, Threewitt confronted just about every challenge the sport could muster, along with a tour of infantry service during World War II. He fought the Axis in Italy, while his friend and fellow trainer Leonard Dorfman took on the Germans.

“I always told Noble that he was fighting the gang who couldn’t shoot straight, but he did stop some lead,” Dorfman said. “In those cases, you’ve just got to be lucky. The guy who was in the foxhole with him died.”

When Threewitt went back to training in California after the war, purses then were doled just 27 percent of the available takeout, leaving the racetracks a fat 73 percent. The figure went to 40 percent, with the help of a brief entry boycott, and then, under Threewitt’s leadership of the California Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, eventually reached 50 percent parity.

For those who think the inconsistencies of drug testing procedures are a modern phenomenon, think again. Threewitt was swept up in a 1940s wave of controversial caffeine positives, based on what was then a new and relatively unproven technology of saliva testing. Together with several other well-known trainers and owners, Threewitt has his name dragged through the headlines – courtesy mainly of the publicity-seeking racing board chairman and celebrity attorney Jerry Giesler – before the scientific experts began to flip-flop. Subsequent penalties, including a 60-day suspension for Threewitt, were labeled by the Los Angeles Times as “a face-saving device on the part of the commission; it would have done better to admit it was wrong.”

Threewitt was a forgiving sort of guy, but he never forgot being both wrongly accused and penalized. And while deferential to the institutions at the core of horse racing, he always gave his fellow trainers the benefit of the doubt. Also, Noble Threewitt had a real hard time disliking anybody, as evidenced by an exchange with his Santa Anita backstretch neighbor, Bob Baffert.

“I heard you said something nice about me,” Baffert said, referring to a Threewitt comment in a newspaper article.

“Is that right?” Noble deadpanned. “Well, if I did, I sure didn’t mean to.”

The Threewitt story, all 10 decades, forever will be decorated with a cluster of familiar highlights:

In 1931 he became the youngest licensed trainer in North America when, at 21, he opened for business at Agua Caliente.

He voted for the first time in 1932 and got to mark a “yes” to restore parimutuel racing to California. Talk about self-interest.

In 1935 he had a bit part in a Mae West movie called “Going to Town, and was paid $20 a day for his trouble.

He trained Wood Memorial and Florida Derby winner Correlation in 1954 and to the end called him the best horse he ever handled, even though the ensuing years brought him such good ones as King of Cricket, Honeys Gem, Perizade, Devoted Brass, Cuzwuzwrong, Cerise Reine, Theresa’s Tizzy, and Old Topper, along with the eight horses who accounted for Threewitt’s remarkable nine straight wins at Tanforan, near San Francisco, in April of 1956.

Through it all, Threewitt’s philosophical roots never let him stray far from what he considered his highest calling – the welfare of the people who work with the horses. It was in his role as president of the California Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Foundation that backstretch clinics in Northern and Southern California were built. Even before the Santa Anita facility was rebranded in his honor, he boiled it down in terms anyone could understand.

“When I came around the track, if you got hurt or sick you were out of luck,” Threewitt said, sitting in his office at the clinic. “You might get lucky and work for a man who would pay your hospital bill. But that didn’t happen too often, and that’s just not right.

“Now, if you could come in here and see all the little kids, waiting for their turn for a vaccination, or to see a dentist for their teeth, you’d know why it’s so important,” he added. “Some of these people are seeing a doctor for the first time in their lives.”

In the end, it was left to Del Mar CEO Joe Harper to sum up the legacy of a man whose life spanned a Great Depression, a World War, and every major change the racing business has seen.

“I have a feeling that after you put a few coins in somebody’s cup, it doesn’t take long to figure out there’s got to be a better way to help the people you work with,” Harper said. “I guess the game can count itself lucky that Noble has been the kind of guy who cared enough to do something about it.”