06/07/2001 11:00PM

A spiritual descendent of Charlie


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - In case you missed it, the online auction of official Charlie Whittingham memorabilia - offered by his son, Michael - has dwindled down to a precious few items. There are still some photos, a halter, a schooling pad. But if you'd gotten in early, you could have snagged a Whittingham tie, a Whittingham hat, or even the shirt off Whittingham's back.

How a son honors the memory of his dead father is family business, although there are probably better ways than a cyberspace yard sale. Whittingham's Pub & Deli at Hollywood Park and the Whittingham Bar at Del Mar are user-friendly tributes that invite fans to enjoy the races as much as Charlie used to. On another front, the Whittingham Foundation is making plans to share Charlie's legacy with the entire California racing community, hopefully in the form of a first-class museum and hall of fame

Out on the racetrack, Hollywood Park steps up again this Sunday with the third running of the $350,000 Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap. It is an appropriate event, for in his heyday Whittingham would have had three or four in the race, chuckling to anyone nearby, "We've got 'em surrounded."

After the race, when he had finished first, second, fourth, and sixth, he would have spent just as much time lamenting the bad luck of the sixth-place horse and extolling the virtues of his second and fourth as he would in praise of the winner. After all, there were probably four different owners involved with four very large egos.

The Whittingham Memorial began life in 1969 as the Hollywood Invitational Turf Handicap. Just to get things rolling, Fort Marcy came west to win for Paul Mellon and Elliott Burch. In 1971, the race picked up a one-time sponsor and became the Ford Pinto Invitational Turf Handicap. Whittingham won it with the high-stepping Chilean runner, setting up his classic punchline, "What do I need with a Pinto? I've got a Cougar." Whittingham won the race seven times. Besides Cougar II, his winners included Fiddle Isle, Exceller, Exploded, Erin's Isle, Dahlia and her son Rivlia. Eight Whittingham runners finished second, but Charlie usually threw those back in the water. Second never did much for him.

It won't work for Bienamado, either. He needs nothing less than a win in the Whittingham to maintain his tenuous position as the top-rated turf horse in the country. Even then, Bienamado still needs to flesh out his press clippings with a major score outside Southern California. The Arlington Million would be fine. The Breeders' Cup Turf would be better.

Paco Gonzalez understands what is at stake. He gets precious little sleep as it is. On Friday, his day began at 3:45 a.m. when he arrived at his Hollywood Park stable. He did not take an easy breath until late in the morning, when he returned from the grandstand paddock and a schooling session with Bienamado.

Gonzalez probably needed the schooling more than Bienamado. Alone with his thoughts for a walk of more than two miles, the trainer could run through every conceivable scenario, imagine every possible pitfall. He would have a chance to examine Bienamado from all angles, keen for the smallest change in coat, stride or demeanor.

"It was too hot," Gonzalez complained upon returning to the barn. Nobody listened. "Too hot for an old man."

Then why not stay in the shade and let his assistants do the deed?

"Oh, no," Gonzalez said, alarmed at the idea. "I've got to see him. He probably didn't need it. But it's better to go. You never know. He looks pretty good. He looks very good. What do you think?"

Such one-sided Socratic dialogue runs continually through the mind of Paco Gonzalez. He takes no coffee breaks. If he eats, no one notices. When he sits down, one leg is always cocked, ready to move. Once, not long ago, he broke his collarbone and he had to hold still. He couldn't lift a hoof or pony a horse to the track. It almost killed him.

If nothing else, Gonzalez is a spiritual descendant of Charlie Whittingham, through the late Joe Manzi. Manzi worked for Whittingham in the 1950's, and Gonzalez put in 20 years with Manzi. For the last 11 years, Gonzalez has been training exclusively for John Toffan and Trudy McCaffery. Together they have raced the likes of Free House, Kumari Continent, Pacific Squall, Del Mar Dennis, and Bien Bien, the sire of Bienamado and winner of the Hollywood Turf Handicap in 1993 in course record time.

Winning a race named for Whittingham would mean the world to Gonzalez - as it would for any of the trainers taking a crack at Bienamado on Sunday. The trophy would fit well in the growing Gonzalez collection, but sometimes the most cherished memorabilia is tucked away in a corner of the mind, always handy when inspiration is required, and never for sale.

"The longest I ever talked to Charlie was at Del Mar after I started training," Gonzalez said. "We'd be in the stands there by the five-eighths pole. I always respected what he said."

And what did they talk about?

"Oh, just things," Gonzalez replied. "Things . . . and horses."