A man who has been around for most of the 58 previous Will Rogers Handicaps will try to win the 59th running Sunday at Hollywood Park.
Trainer Noble Threewitt, 87, will have Old Topper--running for the first time on turf--in the one-mile Rogers.
Remarkably, Threewitt, who has been married to wife Beryl for 65 years, has been winning races for seven decades and would like nothing better than to commemorate Hollywood Park's 60th anniversary season than with a stakes win by Old Topper.
A chestnut son of Gilded Time out of the Phone Trick mare Shy Trick, Old Topper, owned by Barbara Hunter, won two of seven starts last year as a 2-year-old. One of his victories was in the Best Pal Stakes at Del Mar, and he was a nose short of beating Souvenir Copy in the Del Mar Futurity.
He finished last in the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita last Oct. 19 and, shortly thereafter, a shin problem surfaced that kept him on the sidelines until March 29, when he won the San Pedro Stakes, Threewitt teaming with another veteran, jockey Laffit Pincay Jr., 51.
Old Topper's injury effectively ended whatever chance he had at the Kentucky Derby, but Threewitt hasn't completely ruled out the Preakness for the colt. The second jewel of the Triple Crown will be run next Saturday at Pimlico.
"It's a small chance, but [the Preakness] is a possibility," Threewitt said. "If he runs a bang-up race [Sunday], there could be a chance. I think the owner would like to see it."
If that small chance became reality, Threewitt would be going to the Preakness for the first time since 1954. Correlation, saddled by Threewitt, finished second to Hasty Road in Maryland, two weeks after finishing sixth as the 3-1 favorite under Bill Shoemaker in the Kentucky Derby.
First, however, there is the Will Rogers, the sixth graded stakes of Hollywood Park's milestone meeting. Threewitt was there when the Inglewood track made its debut in 1938, just as he was there when Santa Anita, Del Mar, Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields opened.
"Santa Anita had started in 1934 and everybody was excited about there being a second track," said Threewitt, who was born in Benton, Ill., and who also had a brief career as a jockey. "The trainers and owners enjoyed being there, and we had terrific crowds in those days.
"It was a nice place to race then, and it still is a nice place to race now."
Threewitt began training 67 years ago at Caliente. His first winner, Crackerjack, was ridden by the late Harry Henson, who, for many years after he stopped riding, was the popular track announcer at Hollywood Park and Del Mar. Threewitt came to California when parimutuel wagering was legalized in the state in the mid-1930s.
A six-term president of the California Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Assn. and a 16-year national vice president of the HBPA, he seems optimistic about the future of his sport.
"I think the new organization [the National Thoroughbred Racing Assn.] has some wonderful people involved," he said. "I think they are going to do some good and help put racing back on the map.
"I don't think we get our share of publicity, and I think they're going to help attract [fans] and do something to get people coming out regularly to the track. In the next few years, I believe we're going to see a big change."
That remains to be seen, but Threewitt, whose last major stakes win at Hollywood Park was with Devoted Brass in the 1993 Swaps, still loves his job. It shows, too, because he looks and acts far younger than his age.
"I've been blessed with good health and enjoy what I do," he said. "I think it's great that, at 87, I can still be out here doing what I want to be doing."
Another stakes victory by Old Topper on Sunday would make life even better.
"He's doing as well as he ever has," Threewitt said. "He's feeling good and now we just have to hope he takes to the grass. And that's something you never know until you try them."
Horse Racing Notes
Looking for her third consecutive stakes win, Dance Parade will have eight opponents in the $100,000 Wilshire Handicap today at Hollywood Park. The winner of the Buena Vista and Las Cienegas handicaps in her first two U.S. starts, Dance Parade will be opposed in the mile turf race by Shake The Yoke, Golden Arches, Cozy Blues, Passegiata, Tassa, Real Connection, Traces Of Gold and Baby Grand.
Skip Away will carry 128 pounds, the highest impost of his career, when he meets four rivals in the $750,000 Pimlico Special today in Baltimore. Second to Gentlemen in the 1997 Special, Skip Away's challengers are Wagon Limit, Hot Brush, Precocity and Draw.
Derby Trial winner Souvenir Copy and San Rafael Stakes winner Orville N Wilbur's head a field of 10 in today's $500,000 Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park in Chicago. . . . Well Chosen, who scored her biggest win in the Ashland Stakes last month at Keeneland, has been retired after suffering an injury to her left front ankle while finishing eighth in the Kentucky Oaks on May 1. Wayne Lukas trained the 3-year-old filly for owners Mrs. John Magnier and Michael Tabor.