02/24/2005 12:00AM

Training since 20, Threewitt hits 94


ARCADIA, Calif. - At a certain point the total becomes impressive, and simple birthdays turn into milestones. Chalk up another one for Noble Threewitt.

On Thursday, the gentleman from Benton, Ill., turned the page on No. 94. Threewitt celebrated by getting up in the pitch dark, driving his Caddy to Santa Anita, and sending the members of his small stable through their paces. There was a gathering of well-wishers at Clocker's Corner, then Threewitt was off to his other job, as director of the California Thoroughbred Horsemen's Foundation's Noble Threewitt Health Clinic, where each Thursday backstretch families bring their children for weekly pediatric care, consultation, and vaccination.

In the meantime, the rest of us were just starting the day.

Threewitt claims to have no special secret to his longevity. Leading a long life, he figures, is pretty much an accident of genetics. But he is too modest. A big part of the battle is choosing a life partner. Getting it right the first time takes insight and skill.

Noble and Beryl Threewitt will celebrate their 72nd wedding anniversary on July 29. Asked how her husband is holding up, Beryl chuckled and read his mind.

"I'll tell you exactly what he'd tell you, just like any trainer," she said. "He's got two maiden fillies and nowhere to run. Noble says he's pretty much outlived all his good owners."

At least he's in for the long haul, with a personal timeline that reflects the arc of 20th century racing history . . . including its weather.

"I've never in my life seen rain like we've had this year," Threewitt said. "Never. People say to me, 'Aw, you're just forgetting.' Well, I don't forget that bad."

Granted, he has a lot to recall. At the age of 20, in 1931, Threewitt became the youngest licensed trainer in North America when he hung out his shingle at Caliente Racetrack in Tijuana.

At the age of 30, in 1941, Threewitt was among the guinea pigs victimized by faulty procedures in a drug-testing scandal that rocked California racing. Along with four others, he ended up serving a 60-day suspension that a Los Angeles Times editorial called "a face-saving device on the part of the [racing] commission; it would have done better to admit it was wrong."

At the age of 50, in 1961, Threewitt won his third consecutive training title during the spring-summer meet at Hollywood Park, topped by Perizade's victory in the Vanity Handicap. In the history of the track, dating back to 1938, only two other trainers have won three straight championships - Hall of Famers Bill Molter and Bobby Frankel.

At the age of 60, in 1971, Threewitt campaigned one of the West's top sprinters, King of Cricket, as well as one of California's most reliable long-distance turf horses, Try Sheep. The bald guy in the barn next door had most of the big money wired (Whittingham was his name), but Threewitt still ranked 18th in the nation by the end of the year.

At intervals along the way, Threewitt fought for our side in the Italian campaign of World War II (he has the shrapnel scars to prove it), then resumed his career with the backing of the influential John D. Hertz. In 1954, Threewitt won the Florida Derby and Wood Memorial with Correlation, who went favored in the Kentucky Derby and finished second in the Preakness. During the spring of 1956, Threewitt somehow managed to win nine races in a row at Tanforan.

A talented horse is never squandered in his hands. Saturday's running of the San Carlos Handicap at Santa Anita marks the 20th anniversary of Threewitt's victory in the prestigious sprint with Debonaire Junior, who also won versions of the Palos Verdes, the El Conejo, and the Triple Bend. In 1993, at a mere 82, Threewitt won the Swaps Stakes with Devoted Brass. In 1998, after winning the Pat O'Brien Handicap at Del Mar with Old Topper, Threewitt vowed the experience would add 10 years to his life.

So far, so good.

The Threewitt shed row is still in business, with his trademark red-and-white "3WITT" logo adorning webbings and pads. His horses are happy - if you listen closely, they purr - and everything is neat as a pin. Seems like the kind of place where a Thoroughbred would thrive.

"Absolutely," said Dr. Rick Arthur, a director of the Oak Tree Racing Association. "I've known him since the early 1970's. He had 40 horses then, and his barn was as nifty as Wayne Lukas's before it was in style. He's always run a very professional shed row."

On Thursday morning, there was supposed to be a big birthday cake delivered to Clocker's Corner for Threewitt and his pals, courtesy of Oak Tree. The cake was a no-show, much to Arthur's chagrin.

Later in the day, Arthur had a chance to make amends after the running of the featured Noble Threewitt Purse. Threewitt didn't have a runner, but it was worth a trip to the winner's circle to accept a check from the Oak Tree Racing Association for the Noble Threewitt Health Clinic. The amount was $9,400.

"I still feel terrible about the cake," Arthur said. "But Noble didn't care. And with him, I've got a feeling we'll have another chance next year."