06/13/2002 12:00AM

When Charlie met Chuck

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - There are three significant races on Saturday's card, and Hollywood Park is calling it the Governor's Festival, even though governors come and go.

The Californian, the Hollywood Oaks, and the Whittingham Memorial have very little to do with state politics. In fact, there is only one name that links the three races with any sense of historical clarity. And his name is already on one of them.

Charlie Whittingham won the Californian for the first time in 1956 when Swaps blinked and Porterhouse caught him deep in the stretch. After that, Whittingham won the race with Social Climber, Cougar (twice), Quack (twice), Erin's Isle, The Wonder, Greinton, Judge Angelucci, and Sunday Silence, in the last start of his career.

The Californian, at a middle distance on the dirt for mostly older males, was right in Whittingham's wheelhouse. But anyone who thought he had something against collecting big races with 3-year-old fillies was dead wrong. He won the Hollywood Oaks six times, with Pattern Step, Hidden Light, Glenaris, Miss Musket, Pallisima, and Turkish Trousers, a champion.

Then there is Charlie's race. The Whittingham Memorial used to be called the Hollywood Invitational Turf Handicap, and all the best grass horses have been in attendance at one time or another. When Charlie died in April of 1999, his name was attached to the race. It's the right one.

Whittingham won the Whittingham seven times in its first 19 runnings, beginning with Fiddle Isle in 1970 and ending with Rivlia in 1987. In between there was Cougar, Dahlia, Exceller, Exploded, and Erin's Isle.

The three races stand in tribute to Whittingham's career. In California racing, at least, his memory is impossible to avoid. His name and image adorn a paddock pub at Del Mar, a grandstand terrace restaurant at Hollywood Park, and artwork in the gardens of Santa Anita.

Actually, the Whittingham bronze, by sculptor Celou Bonet, is under lock and key after being target of an attempted theft. A Santa Anita spokesman confirmed that someone tried to pry both the Whittingham bust and Bonet's companion bronze of Toby, Charlie's Australian shepherd, from their marble pedestals.

"I can't believe someone would want to steal my dad's head," exclaimed Charlene Von Bluecher, who has been hard at work insuring her father's legacy through the Whittingham Foundation.

Stranger things have happened. Like, for instance, the dinner I had during Kentucky Derby week with Charles Whittingham, in the company of Peggy Whittingham, widow of the late Charlie Whittingham.

Don't panic. This was not a case of resurrection, reincarnation, or too much Cuervo Gold. This was Charles Whittingham of the Chicago Whittinghams, now living in Connecticut, and the retired publisher of both Fortune and Life magazines.

What are the odds? Sure, we've all met the lesser half of name doubles before. But in this entry of Whittingham, there was no weaker link. They had never heard of each other because they were busy making history in their own competitive worlds.

Charles Whittingham (Peggy calls him Chuck) became a racing fan at the 1986 Derby, his first, when he attended with colleagues from Fortune. Upon scanning the entries for the big one, he was stunned to find that one of them was trained by a guy named Charles Whittingham.

"So I had to bet, of course," Chuck Whittingham said. "Ferdinand paid $37.40, and I made a lot of money."

The imagination soars. What could be "a lot of money" to the man who put together the Fortune 500? Better yet, the Whittinghams connected. The following winter, Chuck Whittingham and his wife were the guests of Charlie and Peggy Whittingham in California, where of course they went to the races.

"We saw Charlie win a stakes race, when he beat a horse trained by his son," Chuck Whittingham recalled. It was the 1987 Arcadia Handicap, in which Thrill Show defeated Skywalker, trained by Michael Whittingham.

"After the race, Charlie turned to me and said, 'You're good luck, Whittingham.' "

The Whittinghams - all four of them - met from time to time through the ensuing years, primarily when Charlie and Peggy followed a horse to New York. They lost direct touch, then Charlie died. Peggy picks up the story from there.

"Last year, a friend of ours was reading the Seabiscuit book on an airplane," she said. "He struck up a conversation about racing with the man sitting in the next seat. It was Chuck. At one point our friend mentioned he knew Charlie Whittingham."

Information was exchanged. Chuck Whittingham, recently widowed, asked Peggy's friend to put them in touch. Not long after that, the phone rang one day in California. Peggy's granddaughter answered.

"There's some nut on the phone," she said. "He says his name is Charles Whittingham." They met for lunch in New York, then with friends at the Derby.

"We're just friends," Peggy insisted, with a twinkle in her eye. "Separate rooms."

For the first time since the death of her husband, Peggy Whittingham will be at Hollywood Park to award the trophy to the winner of the Whittingham Memorial. As for this other Charles Whittingham, he seems to be a classy guy. But how many times did he win the Californian?