02/25/2004 12:00AM

A tribute to racing's healer

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ARCADIA, Calif. - In the northwest corner of the Santa Anita Park property, back by the towering stacks of hay bales and piles of training track sand, a crowd of about 150 people gathered late Wednesday morning to cheer the unveiling of a $200 sign.

The occasion was significant enough to attract a smattering of dignitaries, including Santa Anita general manager Chris McCarron, Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella, and Dr. Jack Robbins, president of the Oak Tree Racing Association. Their comments were brief and to the point, befitting the humble demeanor of the man they had come to honor and the prediction of an approaching rainstorm.

The sign said it all, and when it was finally unveiled, with a great unsticking of duct tape and a guy on a ladder, its message was cause for considerable applause. It read:

"Noble Threewitt Health Center."

Catholic deacon Arnie Lopez, on hand for the benediction, described the clinic as a place to witness "the miracle of healing."

"I came to bless this building," Lopez said. "But Noble blessed this place a long time ago."

Joe Harper, master of ceremonies and the boss at Del Mar, agreed. He suggested that a better name for the place might be Lourdes.

"Name a health building after a 93-year-old guy, people should be flocking here," Harper said.

They have been, at the rate of about 7,000 each year, taking advantage of the fully equipped clinic that makes life on a California backstretch a little more civilized than the average American racetrack, at least when it comes to health care access.

A tour of the facility, courtesy of clinic administrative assistant Monica Inda, reveals everything a closed community like the backstretch could possibly want in readily available services. A spacious waiting room greets patients and their families. Examination rooms are plentiful, including one dedicated exclusively to pediatrics. There are three examination rooms in the dental care wing, alone, an optometry center, and enough diagnostic equipment to provide clinic physicians with the kind of information they need to treat all but the most critically ill patients.

"I worked here for 20 years," said Inda, whose husband is trainer Eduardo Inda. "Ever since it was just three rooms in a small trailer, with people standing in line outside. You try to do what you can, but since we've had this place, so many more people have been helped."

Noble Threewitt, who celebrated his 93rd birthday Tuesday, is rightfully proud of the building that now bears his name.

"It should be here awhile," he said.

It was Threewitt's persistence in establishing independent funding, through the California Thoroughbred Horsemen's Foundation, that should help keep the clinic in operation for the foreseeable future.

"Your contribution to this clinic goes a lot deeper than just brick and mortar," Harper said, addressing Threewitt. "Noble, you've always cared more about the game than yourself."

The pride of Benton, Ill., and a trainer since the age of 21, Threewitt made his mark training for such clients as John D. Hertz, Cecillia de Mille Harper, and Ed Janss. He has been a leading trainer at top meets like Hollywood Park, started the favorite for the 1954 Kentucky Derby (Correlation), and once won nine straight races at old Tanforan, near San Francisco.

Tanforan is long gone, but Threewitt still shows up at his Santa Anita barn long before sunrise, every single day, and not a day goes by when some issue of horsemen's welfare does not attract his attention.

"When I came around the track, if you got hurt or sick you were out of luck," Threewitt said when asked about then and now. "You might get lucky and work for a man who paid your hospital bill. But that didn't happen too often. And that's just not right."

Threewitt has felt that way for more than half a century, a philosophy that inspired him to help establish the California branch of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association in 1950. Through the years, he has quietly, firmly advocated backstretch welfare issues and basic working rights for trainers and stable staff alike, from such simple efforts as tack room heaters and recreation centers to the more complicated issues of pensions and health care.

Through it all, Threewitt has never craved an ounce of credit. On Wednesday morning, he let others do the talking, then got the biggest kick out of rubbing elbows with training colleagues in attendance, a list that included Leonard Dorfman, Ron McAnally, Bob Bean, Howard Zucker, John Sullivan, Jerry Fanning, Barry Abrams, Mel and Warren Stute, Ed Halpern, Jerry Dutton, Henry Moreno, Sandy Shulman, Paddy Gallagher, Eduardo Inda, John Pappalardo, and Wally Dunn. Track photographer Rayetta Burr got them to stop giving each other a hard time long enough to snap a team photo.

"I'm just privileged to be here to say thank you," Mandella said as he surveyed the dedication crowd. "I think there would be a lot more trainers here this morning if they realized how much Noble has done for them."

Maybe so. But now, the sign on the building can speak for them all.

* Apologies for messing up the ownership of Unfurl the Flag, the freshly-minted co-holder of the Santa Anita seven-furlong track record. If he keeps running like that, we'll see his name a lot, along with his proud partnership of Gaylord Ailshie, Alan Aidekman, Bruce Rose, and Tom Harris.