06/11/2003 11:00PM

A pretty good resemblance

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It might be happening, right before our very eyes. There is a chance that Bobby Frankel is becoming the game's new Charlie Whittingham.

Now, this is where the calm and reasonable reader rips page 5 out of the paper and uses it to soak up the grease in a bacon sandwich. The idea that someone could fill the well-worn barn boots of Charles Edward Whittingham is preposterous. The notion that Robert F. Frankel might be that guy . . . well, wars have been fought over less.

But cool down a minute. There is evidence backing the case, and not just the fact that Frankel does his California business out of the Hollywood barn where Charlie hung his hat, or that Bobby's Belmont-based horses live in the old Buddy Hirsch shed row, which was Whittingham's New York home away from home.

There is a vein that runs deeper, a bond across the generations that combines honor, ambition, and horsemanship in just the right proportion. And what better day to celebrate that bond than on Saturday at Hollywood Park, when the three-stakes package will feature the $350,000 Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap for older horses at 1 1/4 miles on the grass.

From its inception in 1969 through the 1998 running, the race was known as the Hollywood Invitational Turf Handicap, the Ford Pinto Invitational Turf Handicap, or the plain old Hollywood Turf Handicap. Then Whittingham died in April 1999, a week after his 86th birthday, and the name of the race was changed again, this time to reflect the true nature of its personality. Whittingham won the race seven times.

Frankel is close with six, including last year's running with Denon. And while Frankel will be in Kentucky on Saturday with Aldebaran for the Stephen Foster, he will have a presence in the Whittingham with Blue Steller.

A victory would be a perfect way for Bobby to mark the 30th anniversary of his first win in the race. That came with Life Cycle in 1973 at the expense of - who else? - Whittingham.

The Bobby Frankel of 1973 was a big-haired, bell-bottom wearing bachelor in his early 30's. He was "That '70's Show," and he wore New York on his sleeve.

Whittingham, on the other hand, had just turned 60. Hair products were not an issue. At that point in his life, Charlie was still more U.S. Marine than the approachable folk hero he became later on. In 1973, when Whittingham scowled, somebody had a bad day.

Their career arcs are similar, although Frankel had neither the Great Depression nor World War II to inhibit the economic growth of his early days in the game. As a result, Frankel does not have Whittingham's wealth of worldly tales. But he does have the same sinister sense of humor.

Whittingham was in his 40's before he had his first big-time shot with the well-bred horses of Liz Tippett's Llangollen Farm.

Frankel was a claiming whiz, handling the occasional good horse, until he turned 40 and key patrons began approaching him with a better brand of animal.

As the 1970's unfurled, Whittingham dominated his rivals with a well-balanced mixture of older grass horses, main track runners, and homebred 3-year-olds from a core of principal owners that included oil baron Howard Keck, lumberman Aaron Jones, and shoe heiress Mary Florsheim Jones, along with smaller inventory from such heavy-hitters as George Steinbrenner, Marjorie Everett, Burt Bacharach, and Quinn Martin.

Frankel took over the standings with a well-balanced mixture of older grass horses, main-track runners, and 3-year-olds - both homebred and reasonably acquired - from a core of principal owners led by Saudi Arabian Prince Khalid Abdullah and tuna tycoon Edmund Gann, along with such influential patrons as Charles Kenis, John Amerman, and Frank Stronach.

Operating from California, with occasional forays East, Whittingham won his first of four straight national purse titles in 1970, at the age of 57.

Operating from California, with a smaller New York satellite in place, Frankel won his first of what is now two straight money titles - and counting - in 2001, the year he turned 60.

And then there was Whittingham's devoted Australian shepherd named Esther, short for Estrapade, his champion turf mare. Frankel has an equally devoted Australian shepherd named Happy, named for what Bobby keeps reminding himself to be.

"Needless to say, we all understand Bobby's moods," said Jerry Moss, the record company executive who employed both trainers with great success. "Charlie wasn't moody, but he could be a little surly sometimes, although first and foremost he was a gentleman. And he was a very important guy for me at a very particular time in my life.

"One of my favorite things is when Charlie would say, 'It's better to say sorry that you did than sorry that you didn't.' It's a term you can apply to life. You can't just sit on the shelf.

"And when it comes to getting a good horse ready for a big race, Bobby is very close to what Charlie did," Moss noted. "It's a sensitivity, an understanding of what it takes, and still have that horse around for the next opportunity.

"Charlie always had a lot of admiration for Bobby. And Bobby had nothing but the greatest respect for Charlie. If he were around, I'm sure Charlie would look at what Bobby's done and say, 'I told you so.' "