04/11/2003 12:00AM

Reflections on a life well lived

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ARCADIA, Calif. - On Sunday, Charlie Whittingham would have been 90 years old. Whittingham died a week after his 86th birthday, on April 20, 1999, from complications related to a malignancy discovered several months before.

"If I had known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself," Whittingham liked to say, and it was a good line, but he didn't really mean it, mostly because he had way too much fun getting to that point. American males born in 1913 weren't supposed to live to be 86 anyway.

Instead, Charles Edward Whittingham witnessed just about everything the 20th century had to offer. And since custom dictates we acknowledge the passing of decades, here is what Whittingham was up to as he tumbled through his time on this earth:

In 1923, when Whittingham turned 10, he lived with his aunt and uncle, John and Alice Wood, on a vegetable farm in Otay, a little village south of San Diego. Charlie worshipped his big brother, Joe, who worked across the Mexican border at Caliente Racetrack, and he spent most of his time with his cousin Johnny, riding an old plow horse named Molly.

Molly tripped and fell one day while the boys were racing through the arroyos, landing hard on Whittingham's left elbow. It never did heal straight, but if it bothered Charlie he never let on. He would bet just as much arm wrestling left-handed as he did with his right.

In 1933, Whittingham was a 20-year-old racetracker who already had been up and down the West Coast, always on the hustle for a horse to train or a jock to shop around. Election day in '33 brought parimutuel racing to the state, and the following year, on Christmas of 1934, Santa Anita Park opened its doors. Charlie was there, but that moment in history he had more jockeys (two) than horses (zero).

Not long after that, Whittingham hooked up with Horatio Luro, a flamboyant trainer from Argentina who had a knack of attracting both good horses and angry husbands. The future looked bright.

Then the tide of history rose and swept Whittingham off to the South Pacific with the 2nd Division of the U.S. Marines. Charlie fought on Guadalcanal, watched a lot of buddies die, and turned 30 while stationed on Johnston Atoll, a treeless island infested with goony birds where Whittingham dealt with the affects of malaria and appendicitis. Happy birthday.

What a difference a decade makes. Between 30 and 40, Whittingham met and married Peggy Boone, brought a son and daughter into the world, lived high on the hog as Luro's right-hand man, and finally struck out on his own, training for eastern socialite Elizabeth Whitney Tippett. In 1953, the freshly turned 40-year-old trained his first champion, the 2-year-old colt Porterhouse.

By the time he was 50, Whittingham's clientele had expanded to include such patrons as John Gaines, Robert Hibbert, C.C. Moseley, and Ralph Wilson, owner of the Buffalo Bills. Liz Tippett fired Charlie and hired him again - good thing, too. Six days after Charlie turned 50, on April 19, 1963, a son of Endeavor was foaled at Tippett's Llangollen Farm. He turned out to be Pretense, winner of the Santa Anita Handicap and Whittingham's best horse of the era.

When a fellow hits 60, after being on his own for more than 40 years, retirement is not such radical idea. For a Thoroughbred trainer, however, it is barely middle age, and Whittingham was in his prime. In 1973, Whittingham celebrated the end of his sixth decade by leading the nation in earnings for the fourth straight year. In 1974 he entered the Hall of Fame.

As he approached 70, Whittingham still reigned as leading trainer in the land. In 1982 he handled champion Perrault, led the nation in earnings, and won his second personal Eclipse Award. In 1983 there was Erins Isle and The Wonder leading the stable attack. There were whispers, though, about the glaring hole in Whittingham's resume. If he was such hot stuff, when was he going to win a Kentucky Derby?

Charlie took care of that detail in 1986 with Ferdinand, then went back for more in 1989 with Sunday Silence. End of whispers. In April of 1993, for his 80th birthday celebration in the backyard of his home in Sierra Madre (dubbed "Sleepy Hollow" by Peggy long ago), Whittingham donned a black cowboy hat, a leather vest, and a string tie, and tried to act his age. That year, he won the Santa Anita Handicap with Sir Beaufort and trained champion grass mare Flawlessly.

Well into 1999, Whittingham was still going daily to his Santa Anita stable. For Charlie, the job never lost its appeal, nor did the horses ever lose their fascination, and because of that his influence survives. It is no coincidence that Bobby Frankel, top dog these days, trains out of Whittingham's old Hollywood Park barn.

"All the stuff about hard work is one thing," said the late racing office legend Jimmy Kilroe, who had Whittingham pegged from way back. "But many people work very hard and don't know what they're doing. Whittingham knows. He's the perfect example of genius rising to its rightful level."