02/20/2007 1:00AM

Living history turns a page


ARCADIA, Calif. - Consider for a moment all the things Noble Threewitt has seen.

He was first licensed as a Thoroughbred trainer in 1931, at the age of 20, and began winning races at Agua Caliente in Tijuana, where the swinging class of Southern California migrated each weekend to fill the posh casino and play the ponies. In March of 1932, Threewitt watched Phar Lap train each morning, trotting up and down the surrounding hills, and then run to his Australian reputation by winning the $100,000 Agua Caliente Handicap.

On Christmas Day, 1934, Threewitt saw parimutuel Thoroughbred racing return to California with the opening of Santa Anita Park, an art deco sporting palace that rivaled the greatest tracks of the East. On July 3, 1937, Threewitt was at Del Mar to witness the opening of Bing Crosby's seaside resort track, and then a year later, Threewitt beheld the unveiling of glitzy Hollywood Park.

From 1942 to 1945, Threewitt set his training career aside in deference to the needs of the U.S. Army. He saw action in the Italian campaign, as one of the thousands of American GI's who battled their bloody way from Sicily to Rome, and was wounded for his trouble. Good luck getting him to talk much about it.

In 1948, back to work in California, Threewitt was among the influential trainers and owners who looked racetrack management straight in the eye and demanded an increase in the available purse money split, from the prevailing 27 percent to a more realistic 40 percent. It took an entry boycott and a vow to shut down the game, but management relented and the horsemen won.

In 1954, Threewitt could hardly believe his eyes when Johnny Adams and Hasty Road carried Bill Shoemaker and heavily favored Correlation wide at the top of the Pimlico stretch and then hung on by a neck to win the 79th running of the Preakness. As Correlation's trainer, Threewitt was too polite to claim any kind of foul, but you'll never convince him he didn't run the best horse that day.

In 1956, between April 5 and Aprilo11, Threewitt was treated to the satisfying sight of nine straight starters hitting the winner's circle at Tanforan Racetrack, near San Francisco. Tanforan is long gone, but not the memory of those nine, named Challtack, Colonel Vic, Jolly Sister, Coiner, She's Quick, Wanda Witch, Hillside Romp, and Fleet Charge, who contributed a pair.

Threewitt saw more than his share of good horses come through in big races. Correlation won the Wood Memorial and the Florida Derby. Perizade won the Vanity Handicap. King of Cricket won the Malibu Stakes. Cerise Reine won the Santa Margarita. Honeys Gem and Sea Eagle won the Ramona Handicap. Devoted Brass won the Swaps Stakes. Debonaire Junior won the San Carlos Handicap. And in 1998, at the age of 87, Threewitt sent out Old Topper to win the Pat O'Brien.

Still, Threewitt might have traded a few of those if the stewards could have taken just one more look at the stretch run of the 1975 Santa Anita Handicap. He is certain they would have seen the gangly gray Stardust Mel firmly bump his little bulldog, Out of the East, in the dying moments of the 1 1/4-mile slog through deep mud. The difference in the end was only a nose, but they let the result stand.

Threewitt closed up shop not long ago, and is now officially retired. At the age of 95, this would not seem unreasonable, especially since the Threewitt stable was down to just a few horses. But to the end his spirit was strong and his horsemanship keen. It was his eyes that failed him, complications from cataract implant surgery in both left and right.

"He got so frustrated, not being able to see what his horses were doing," said Beryl Threewitt, Noble's wife of 73 years. "And he couldn't be sure people were telling him what he needed to know. It was starting to affect him physically."

Threewitt has a backstretch health clinic at Santa Anita and a horsemen's lounge at Hollywood Park named in his honor. He served six different terms as president of the California Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, beginning in 1957, and continues in his role as president of the California Thoroughbred Horsemen's Foundation. In 2004 he was honored by the National Turf Writers Association with the Joe Palmer Award for meritorious service to horse racing. If ever there was a man who had done enough for his profession, it's Threewitt. But don't bother telling him so.

"We had a foundation meeting this morning, and Lord, I couldn't even read the figures on the sheets," said a frustrated Threewitt this week, from his office in the Noble Threewitt Medical Center. "I feel so bad, I can't enjoy my friends. I try to get around, be halfway nice to people, then run right by them or don't even know who I'm talking to."

Threewitt says there is a glimmer of hope that something can be done to restore a degree of quality to his eyesight. In the meantime, nothing will stop his friends and colleagues - pretty much the same bunch - from honoring him at every turn, beginning with a dinner hosted by the Oak Tree Racing Association on Friday evening in Pasadena and then a 96th birthday splash on Saturday at Santa Anita.

Because one thing is certain. The game will never see the likes of Noble Threewitt again.