04/15/2008 11:00PM

This torch still being passed


ARCADIA, Calif. - The 95th anniversary of Charlie Whittingham's birth passed quietly last Sunday, with a warm wind rustling the newly sprouted leaves of the trees near his grave in a cemetery not far from Santa Anita Park.

Ninety-five is a fine number, and Whittingham had every intention of getting there. His death on April 20, 1999, merely removed the temporal evidence of a life well lived. Otherwise, the racing landscape is littered with Whittingham's far-reaching influence.

Take this weekend's features at Santa Anita, just for instance. Every Sierra Madre schoolchild knows that Whittingham won the closing-day San Juan Capistrano Invitational a total of 14 times, beginning in 1957 with the reformed jumper Corn Husker and finally in 1989 with Sheikh Mohammed's Nasr al Arab. Other trainers were allowed to win the 1 3/4-mile test from time to time just to make it look like Charlie was human.

The Santa Barbara Handicap, to be run on Sunday, began life as a three-furlong stakes for 2-year-olds in the late 1930s. Later it was a 1 1/16-mile main-track race for older horses, which suited Whittingham just fine in 1956 when he won it with Porterhouse. Two starts later, Porterhouse beat Swaps at the same distance in the Californian.

The modern Santa Barbara, at 1 1/4 miles on grass for fillies and mares, commenced in 1962. Whittingham won six of those, and if nothing else the owners of those six Santa Barbara winners tell the tale of Whittingham's clout. Oil Royalty was owned by John Gaines. Mrs. Howard B. Keck bred and owned Tallahto. Gay Style raced for John Sikura. Stravina carried the colors of Mrs. Arthur Stollery, while the last two, Fact Finder and Reloy, belonged to Nelson Bunker Hunt.

Beyond those six, Whittingham could take at least inspirational credit for seven other Santa Barbara winners trained by his spiritual heirs. Neil Drysdale, Whittingham's assistant in the early 1970s, won the race with Bequest and Fiji on his way to the Hall of Fame. Michael Whittingham, Charlie's son, won the 1982 Santa Barbara with Ack's Secret. Chris Speckert, who traveled far and wide with Whittingham's stakes runners before going out on his own, took the event with No Review, and Laura de Seroux, who won the Santa Barbara with Astra before making history with Horse of the Year Azeri, learned her craft at Whittingham's side as an exercise rider and later as a bloodstock liaison.

Trainer Joe Manzi also came up as an exercise rider for Whittingham and went on to glory as a trainer of horses like Roving Boy and Fran's Valentine. In turn, Manzi helped put his young assistant Bill Spawr on the right path, and Spawr has responded with a successful career that has included a Santa Barbara victory with Exchange in 1993.

Who knows how many Santa Barbaras Rodney Rash might have won, had he not died at the age of 36 in March of 1996. As Whittingham's chief assistant through the decade of the 1980s, the intense Rash was present not only for fine mares such as Fact Finder and Reloy, but also such world-rocking runners as Sunday Silence, Ferdinand, Ruhlmann, and Perrault.

Ben Cecil, who picked up the reins of the Rash stable, channels not only the vibes of Whittingham but also the undeniable DNA shared with his uncle, champion English trainer Henry Cecil. Ben Cecil won the Santa Barbara in his first try, with Donna Viola in 1997, and finished second that day with Fanjica as well.

Cecil will try to win another Santa Barbara on Saturday with Solva, a 5-year-old English mare who is coming off a year's absence after ankle surgery.

"I was thinking about running her a mile at the end of March," Cecil said Wednesday after entries. "But she's not really effective at anything under a mile and a quarter. I tried her last year at a mile and one eighth, and she closed quite a lot of ground at the end. But the race was already over."

That 1 1/8-mile race was, in fact, the Santa Barbara, shortened a furlong in 2007 because of a potentially dangerous crossing of a muddy strip of main track from the hillside portion of the turf course to the infield. While most trainers might relish a move to less distance, Cecil and Solva were written right out of the script. In the end she was beaten just over four lengths by Naughty Rafaela.

The full 10 furlongs will be required on Saturday, giving Solva at least a shot. She won the La Zanzara Handicap over the course and distance in her California debut in early '07, leading Cecil to believe that she can fire with a big effort again first time out for her owner and breeder, Welshman Kevin Mercer of Usk Valley Stud. Solva is a town in western Wales, and this mare should not be confused with the other British mare named Solva who won stakes for Ann and Jerry Moss in the mid-1990s.

"It's a tall order to win it," Cecil said of the Santa Barbara, "but it has been my intention for some time to get her to this race. As far as the mile and a quarter is concerned, it doesn't really worry me."

Sounds just like something Charlie would say.