02/22/2007 1:00AM

Noble in name, and noble in deed


ARCADIA, Calif. - Leonard Dorfman went to work for Noble Threewitt in the fall 1947, not long after he was discharged from the Army. Dorfman recalls the Threewitt operation as being neat as a pin, low-key and closely attuned to every possible detail.

"If there was a mark on a horse that wasn't there the day before, Noble knew about it," Dorfman said. "I remember the first time I took a horse to the post for him. He started three horses that day and won all three."

Such tales are filling the air around Santa Anita this weekend, as Threewitt officially retires from training and celebrates his 96th birthday, in one fell swoop. Threewitt is not particularly thrilled by all the fuss - he's not that kind of guy. But that's just too bad. People like Threewitt who never expect public praise or ask for thanks tend to deserve them most of all.

Besides, it never hurts to hold such a remarkable life up to scrutiny. At the very least, it gives the rest of us something to shoot for. Imagine getting a career choice right at the age of 20, and then enjoying the health, the luck, and the longevity to pursue that profession far longer than could ever be imagined.

At 84 and retired now from his own training career, Dorfman can lay claim to being Threewitt's oldest racetrack pal. Both were veterans of the war - Threewitt fought the Italians, while Dorfman took on the Germans - but they were more than happy to leave that life behind and re-enter the world of racing.

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

Threewitt, a farmboy from the southern Illinois town of Benton, has defied all actuarial expectations. According to the National Vital Statistics kept by the Centers for Disease Control, a white male born in the United States in 1911 could expect to live an average of 51.3 years. This would have put Threewitt smack in the middle of the 1962 Hollywood Park meeting, and would have made front-page news, since he had just won Hollywood training titles in 1959, 1960, and 1961. But then, consider the competition, coming primarily from no-names like Charlie Whittingham, Bill Molter, and Mesh Tenney. Later on, all of them somehow stumbled into the Hall of Fame.

"He's as good a racehorse conditioner as I've ever known," Dorfman said. "He was a very hands-on trainer. Just a natural. I don't think he ever ran a short horse in his life. Noble's the kind of guy, if he saw a horse sore it would hurt him."

Trainer Bob Bean, who came under the Threewitt spell when he worked for Dorfman in the 1980's, sits on the board of directors of the California Thoroughbred Horsemen's Foundation and its Noble Threewitt Health Center. When it comes to Threewitt's legacy, Bean's mantra is familiar.

"It's a crime that Noble is not in the Hall of Fame," Bean said. "When you look at the scope of what he's accomplished, it is awesome."

True enough. But while Threewitt's record is far above average by any conventional measure, the portion of his resume that catches the attention of the Hall of Fame contains no Triple Crown winners, no Breeders' Cup winners, and no national champions. Dorfman pointed out something that, when considered, should count for just as much.

"You know what Noble did?" Dorfman said. "Before he did something about it, there were no heaters in the tackrooms on the backstretch. They just let people live in the cold."

For all his success as a trainer, Threewitt is leaving his largest mark in service of his fellow trainers and backstretch workers. Del Mar president Joe Harper, the son of noted owner Cecilia deMille Harper, can attest to the Threewitt who spent much of his energy behind the scenes.

"I've known Noble forever," Harper said. "In fact, I was the guy who took my mother's horses away from him. But they never seemed to come out of the stall. As it turned out, most of them probably shouldn't have come out of the womb. Noble wasn't one to run a horse just for the sake of running."

As a former six-term president of the California HBPA, one who took the "benevolent" part of the name seriously, Threewitt seemed to translate the hardships of his Depression-era experiences into practical lessons and solutions.

"People came out of that time with a much different ethic," Harper said. "If something went wrong with a groom or a hotwalker in those days, they were on the street.

"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 added. "I guess the game can count itself lucky that Noble has been the kind of guy who cared enough to do something about it."