Charlie Whittingham has been training race horses as far back as he, or anyone else, can remember. He can’t tell you what Man o’ War was like, but he saw Phar Lap.
He started out in the days when racing was legal in only a few places on this continent and he got his early training around the barns and walking rings of Caliente where in those anything-goes days some trainers used to put heroin on the tongues of horses to get their attention. “I don’t know if it made them run faster but it improved their disposition some,” Charlie recalls.
Not much a horse--or horseman--does, surprises Charlie. Whatever it is, chances are he has seen it before. He stares at the world with these bright blue eyes that always seem to be looking at something no one else can see.
Charlie gypsied around the country with the best of them in the days when racing would drop its tack wherever the politicians or the Bible Belters would let it. He learned how to get a horse and a meeting ready at the same time under some of the legendary racetrackers of the day--Senor Horatio Luro, for example. He kept a low profile. Charlie talked just more than a horse. He was part of that long line of horsemen who worked their colts in the dark so the clockers wouldn’t be able to get a good look--and a time--on them.
They called him “The Bald Eagle” around a track. Charlie lost his hair a long time ago. It fell out when he contracted malaria on a landing with the 2nd Marines on Guadalcanal in 1943. Charlie doesn’t want any medals. “It might have fell out anyway,” he shrugs. “There was baldness on my mother’s side.” Charlie just shaved it all off and got on with it. He always wore a hat anyway.
Charlie was as restless as a 2-year-old in his first gate. He always seemed ill-at-ease away from shed row. He tried a vacation in the Bahamas once but it was too far from the action. He prowls a race track like a hungry cat.
Charlie didn’t spread himself thin like other trainers. He didn’t keep a string in New York, Florida, the Midwest or the bayous. He had his own wheel, California, and he rolled nothing but winners.
Charlie didn’t win the most races of any trainer on the tracks, just the richest. He reeled off Santa Anita Handicaps (seven), Hollywood Gold Cups (eight), and more stake races (543) and more hundred-thousand-dollar races (206) than any trainer in history. If you brought your horse west of the Tehachapis, you had Charlie’s horses to beat.
But, if there was one flaw in Charlie’s career, one blind spot in his outlook, it was the Kentucky Derby. Charlie thought it was just another horse race. A sucker bet, actually. It was too early in the year, too far away, too long. It used up your horse. Charlie would rather save him for later in the year when the purses were grander and the races easier. Anyway, California horses were betting into a pat hand. Racing on harder tracks against easier company, they would look like rubes in a subway rush when they got in the Kentucky field.
And, then, Charlie won one.
It happened three years ago. Charlie finally had a horse who looked as if he wouldn’t faint at the head of the stretch in Louisville.
Ferdinand never put anybody in mind of Phar Lap. He had five races as a 2-year-old and won only one of them. But he was out of the money in only one of them. Charlie liked him. He was a puncher. “This horse will win the Kentucky Derby,” he told the rider, Bill Shoemaker, at Del Mar when Ferdinand was a 2-year-old.
So, he went back to Kentucky, a 73-year-old trainer with a 3-year-old horse and a 54-year-old rider, and the press couldn’t believe their good luck. They dubbed the entry “The Sunshine Boys” and pulled all the stops. It was a scenario right out of Disney. All you needed was Walter Brennan and a harmonica. The last roundup.
The hardboots were less sentimental than the rest of the world. They let the horse and the Shoe--and Whittingham--get away at 17-1. They weren’t into any corny Hollywood endings.
But, if Charlie wasn’t shocked at the outcome of the race, he was overwhelmed at the reaction of the rest of the country. Here was a man who had won 2,000 races and the public reacted as if it were his first.
Charlie was on crack-of-dawn television shows, magazine covers, banquet daises. People gave him parties. He got fan letters. So did the horse.
Charlie had thought he was a celebrity. Now, he found out what celebrity was. He thought he had just won another Grade 1 stakes. They say around the race tracks, if you go to heaven and tell St. Peter you’re a horse trainer or a race car driver, he frowns and consults a list. If you say you won the Kentucky Derby or the Indy 500, he says “Go right in!”
Charlie had gone back to Louisville previously with a couple of no-chance colts belonging to the late Liz Whitney, who always overestimated her racers. Gone Fishin’ and Diving Comedy ran down the track. As Charlie could have told her.
Charlie still won’t go back to Louisville with some overblown plating horse with delusions of grandeur. But, this year, he’s getting that look in the eye again. Charlie has a colt by Halo, the sire who already has a Kentucky Derby winner in his pedigree. The 3-year-old Sunday Silence looks to Charlie as if he can run some.
Sunday Silence has not been breaking clocks. But, neither did Ferdinand. Sunday Silence has run five times and never been worse than second. Charlie put him in against the wonder colt, Houston, who is supposed to be able to do everything but talk, and Sunday Silence was all over the race track in the stretch and still lost only by a head. “He doesn’t like to get beat,” grins Charlie.
Charlie likes that in a horse.
The sporting press won’t get The Sunshine Boys Part II if Sunday Silence gets to Louisville. Patrick Valenzuela, who has ridden Sunday Silence in all three of his wins, is just a little bit older than the horse.
Can Charlie get his second Kentucky Derby? Or, his first Preakness or Belmont?
It first hinges on the Santa Anita Derby April 8. Whether Houston comes West for it or not, Sunday Silence must do well in the Derby here (Ferdinand was third). You get a good clue into Charlie’s orientation when you know that, of the 2,140 races he has won, only one is a Santa Anita Derby.
It isn’t that Charlie wants to get stopped for his autograph or wants to have people know him on sight. Charlie, no social butterfly, is always where everybody already knows him. And, if you’re ever looking for him, try the winners’ circle.