The U.S. Postal Service made Charlie Whittingham an honorary postmaster for a day Friday.
But Whittingham collects stakes winners, not stamps. “If you need a fast horse, I might lend you Numerous for some quick delivery,” the 81-year-old Hall of Fame trainer said in accepting the honor.
Whittingham is hoping that Numerous will give him and jockey Pat Valenzuela an express trip and leave his stamp on today’s Preakness at Pimlico.
Go For Gin, the Kentucky Derby winner, is expected to go off favored in the middle race of the Triple Crown, but support has been building all week here for Numerous, as it did for Whittingham’s Strodes Creek before the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago. Strodes Creek had made only four starts before the Derby, not much seasoning for a 3-year-old being asked to run 1 1/4 miles, but Go For Gin was the only horse that stood between Strodes Creek and a Derby victory.
Strodes Creek is also at Pimlico, being readied for the Belmont Stakes in three weeks, leaving Numerous, who has had a week’s more rest than the Derby horses, to carry his trainer’s hopes.
“I think he’ll run very well,” the reticent Whittingham said.
Said Nick Zito, who trains Go For Gin: “I think Numerous is the horse we have to beat. He’s well bred. . . . That’s why he cost $1.7 million as a yearling. What a lot of people overlook is that he was fourth in the Santa Anita Derby, even though he blew a shoe in the race. And the Derby Trial is a good prep for the Preakness.
“A couple of years ago, Alydeed won the Derby Trial and came to Pimlico, and he was all anybody talked about. And he almost won the race.”
In 1992, Pine Bluff had to work hard through the Pimlico stretch to outfinish Alydeed by three-quarters of a length.
Numerous’ Derby Trial was only his sixth race and, like Strodes Creek, the son of Mr. Prospector and grandson of Nijinsky II has never won a stake. His only victory before the Trial was in a maiden race at Santa Anita in November.
So why was Numerous listed at 6-1, the co-third choice, on the Preakness’ morning line? History. Whittingham has come here with Ferdinand, second in 1986, and Sunday Silence, a winner in 1989.
The other day, ABC’s Jim McKay stopped at the barn of Henry Clark, the 90-year-old trainer whose Linkage ran second to Aloma’s Ruler in the 1982 Preakness.
“Henry’s a man of few words,” McKay said. “All he said was, ‘I like Charlie.’ ”
Told of Clark’s assessment, Whittingham said: “We old fellas have got to stick together.”
Whittingham’s Preakness history is colorful. His only starters before Ferdinand and Sunday Silence were Gone Fishin’, third in 1958, and Divine Comedy, fourth in 1960.
Whittingham had never been to Baltimore before the 1958 Preakness. After bedding down Gone Fishin’, the trainer and his veterinarian, Jock Jocoy, went to one of the city’s many good crab restaurants.
Sitting at his table, Whittingham noticed a man at the bar watching him and Jocoy throughout dinner. Finally, after they had finished eating, Whittingham stormed over to the bar. With one punch, he knocked the man off his stool. He and Jocoy then marched out.
The next morning at Pimlico, Whittingham noticed that the man he punched was in the barn area.
“Who is that?” he asked one of the locals. Whittingham was told that the man with the sore jaw was a member of the Maryland State Racing Commission.
The anecdote appears in an autobiographical manuscript that Jocoy has written.
Whittingham confirmed the incident, then added: “Doc left something out. When the guy was on the floor, I ripped off his necktie.”
Whittingham will leave a different impression if Numerous wins from the outside post today. A horse breaking from that position hasn’t won the Preakness since Aloma’s Ruler, who led wire to wire in a seven-horse field in 1982.
Neither Whittingham nor trainer Wayne Lukas, whose Tabasco Cat will break from the inside, is happy with his post.
“If I was picking, I wouldn’t pick No. 10,” Whittingham said. “But I’m not picking, I’m getting. There’s nothing you can do about the post position. It’s not as bad as being on the rail. If we were down there, we might get shut off.”
Valenzuela, who rode Sunday Silence to a narrow victory over Easy Goer in one of the most exciting runnings of the Preakness, has the assignment on Numerous because Eddie Delahoussaye has a virus. Valenzuela had been scheduled to ride Numerous in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on March 20, but Whittingham scratched the colt because of a muddy track. Chris McCarron, who rode Numerous to victory in the Derby Trial, will ride Go For Gin.