Whittingham Pushing Luck and Ferdinand Toward Crown

Times Staff Writer

Charlie Whittingham was lucky before he was good. Growing up in the sagebrush hinterland between San Diego and Mexico almost three-quarters of a century ago, a Whittingham needed luck to avoid the family curse.

When Whittingham was just 9 months old, his father was drowned, probably murdered over a land deal, as it was later explained to Charlie.

Later, one of Charlie's older brothers was rummaging around a deserted shack with a few other kids when they found a .45-caliber revolver. The gun went off, killing the Whittingham boy instantly.

Another of Charlie's brothers was icing a horse's legs in a stall when he was kicked in the stomach. Not long afterward, he died of a ruptured aorta, the body's main artery.

No fatalist, Whittingham joined the Marines at the start of World War II and hoped for the best.

In 1942, Whittingham was in a barracks full of Marines awaiting assignment to the USS Lexington. This time, though, the Whittingham curse worked in reverse.

"There were only two of us in the whole barracks that didn't go," Whittingham said. "Me and Zoufelt. The others went, and most of them died. Me and Zoufelt always figured that they didn't take us because we were at the end of the alphabet."

The Lexington was sunk by the Japanese in the Battle of Midway, the death toll reaching 174.

Luck has also played a part in the 73-year-old Whittingham's extraordinary training career, but his colleagues will readily admit that the man's dedication to the old-fashioned work ethic is a much larger factor.

"With Charlie, there's racing and nothing else," said John Russell, a California trainer. "A lot of us take time off to play golf, go skiing or just take a vacation. Charlie doesn't have time for any of that. With him, it's just racing."

Whittingham once went on a Mexican cruise with his wife, Peggy, but unlike many of the horses he trains, he didn't finish. He had to get back to his barn, to see where his next stakes winner was coming from.

Whittingham has about 450 stakes victories, probably more than any other trainer. But it wasn't until two weeks ago that he finally won America's No. 1 race, the Kentucky Derby. He will try to win today's $534,400 Preakness Stakes at Pimlico with the same colt, Ferdinand, as horse and man seek to stay alive in the Triple Crown series that ends with the Belmont Stakes in New York June 7.

Six rivals--the Wayne Lukas-trained entry of Badger Land and Clear Choice, plus Broad Brush, Snow Chief, Groovy and Miracle Wood--will try to spoil Whittingham's plans before a crowd that might reach a record 90,000 in muggy, 80-degree weather.

Actually, it's slightly unfair to say that Whittingham finally won the Kentucky Derby, because before Ferdinand, he had started only two horses in the race and hadn't been to Churchill Downs since 1960.

The Triple Crown races have never stirred Whittingham's juices. He believes that horses are better off not being pushed when they're young, and he also believes that three tough races over a five-week stretch are too much to ask of a thoroughbred.

But Ferdinand won the Derby, and there was never any thought but to go for the Triple Crown. The son of Nijinsky II and Banja Luka is a Swaps look-alike, a slow-maturing, well-bred colt whose value as a stallion will multiply if he wins the Preakness and Belmont.

"Even with a down market, I'd say the horse might be worth $40 million if he swept the Triple Crown," Whittingham said.

Whittingham has stayed away from the Preakness just as long as he avoided the Derby. He has run only two horses in the Preakness, finishing third with Gone Fishin' in 1958 and fourth with Divine Comedy in 1960.

Whittingham thinks that the Preakness is more difficult to win than the Belmont. "For one thing, you're going to a shorter distance, from a mile and a quarter to a mile and three-sixteenths," he said. "And you're bringing a horse back from a tough race only two weeks later, which is asking a lot. If you've got a good horse who can run a mile and a half in the Belmont, you'll usually find a lot of horses in that race that can't handle that distance."

The public may very well send Badger Land and Clear Choice off as the favorite today, because Badger Land was a creditable fifth after a bad start in the Derby and Clear Choice won the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct 10 days ago.

Ferris Allen, who trains Miracle Wood, is one conditioner who doesn't think much of Ferdinand's chances.

"Ferdinand won the Kentucky Derby on agility," Allen said in a Daily Racing Form interview earlier this week. "In this race, with a smaller field, I don't believe Ferdinand's agility will serve him well.

"In the Derby, Ferdinand was trapped down on the inside early. He used his agility (and a superlative ride by Bill Shoemaker) to thread his way between horses down the backstretch, and he ran a very improved race to win."

Ferdinand hasn't trained spectacularly here, but Whittingham didn't figure that the gangling chestnut needed much work after the Derby. The horse has actually gained a few pounds since he went to Louisville.

And he hasn't lost his appetite for sweets. Whittingham, arriving back at the small grassy area where Ferdinand was grazing the other afternoon, reached into his pocket and took the cellophane off a peppermint that he gave the horse.

Ferdinand put away the peppermint with just a few crunches, then nudged Whittingham with his nose for more.

"That's enough for today, Ferdy," Whittingham said to the horse.

Today will be a sweeter day for them all--Ferdinand, Whittingham and the 54-year-old Shoemaker--if the colt doubles their fun in the Preakness.

Preakness Notes Snow Chief, 11th as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby, has become the forgotten horse of the Preakness. But Friday, he went three furlongs in :34 1/5, a move trainer Mel Stute thought the colt needed after a workout in which he finished slowly a few days ago. Alex Solis, who rides Snow Chief, is a nephew of Jacinto Vasquez, who has the mount on Clear Choice. . . . Donnie Miller, who rides Miracle Wood, had to sweat out a possible suspension by the stewards before he knew he'd be able to participate in the Preakness. One of Miller's mounts was disqualified for interference in a race earlier this week. Miller was a last-minute rider for Deputed Testamony, who won the Preakness in 1983.

PREAKNESS FIELD

PP HORSE JOCKEY ODDS 1 Miracle Wood Miller 20-1 2 Snow Chief Solis 4-1 3 a-Clear Choice Vasquez 2-1 4 Groovy Perret 30-1 5 Ferdinand Shoemaker 9-5 6 Broad Brush C. McCarron 3-1 7 a-Badger Land Velasquez 2-1

a--entry

Weights: 126 pounds. Distance: 1 3/16 miles. Purse: $534,400 if seven start. First place: $411,900. Second place: $70,000. Third place: $35,000. Fourth place: $17,500. Post time: 2:40 p.m. PDT. Television: Channel 7.

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