Obituary: Charlie Whittingham

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
AMERICAN RACING has lost a legend and a talisman with the death of the trainer Charlie Whittingham.

The former marine, known universally as "The Bald Eagle" because of his hairless bullet of a head, was regarded as a man as tough as a tank but with a kind, warm-hearted streak. He was particularly patient with his horses, and was opposed to exposing them to a ruthless, grinding programme of racing in their nascent careers. That meant Whittingham's success was carved from campaigning older horses, which he often "remoulded" after they came to his California stables following careers in Europe and South America.

It also meant, incredibly, that he did not win any of the three legs of the famous American Triple Crown - the Kentucky Derby, Preakness or Belmont Stakes - until 1986; 52 years after his first winner as a trainer. Just as incredibly, when the "big red colt" Ferdinand won that year's Kentucky Derby, it was Whittingham's first contestant in the "Run for the Roses" for 26 years. It would have been an absurd incongruity had a trainer of Whittingham's status not ever won the Derby, and Ferdinand did him proud. Ridden by the legendary jockey Bill Shoemaker, who looked like a pea on a drum on the son of Nijinsky, Ferdinand went on the following year to give Whittingham his first win in the prestigious Breeders' Cup series when he landed the Classic after a thrilling duel with the 1997 Kentucky Derby winner Alysheba.

In 1989, Whittingham produced a horse just as sensational as Ferdinand to give him another Derby winner. Sunday Silence was a black, rangy, temperamental colt who need skilful, careful handling. He had nearly died after illness as a foal and also suffered another near escape in a horsebox when the man driving him suffered a fatal heart attack. But like his trainer, Sunday Silence was tough - and a survivor.

In 1997, a West Coast/East Coast rivalry built up between Sunday Silence and the New York-trained Easy Goer, regarded by many as an absolute champion. Sunday Silence lowered Easy Goer's colours in the Derby and the Preakness only to be beaten by his great rival in the final leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont. A fascinating showdown was set up for the same year's Breeders' Cup Classic, which saw Sunday Silence assert his superiority over Easy Goer once more.

Whittingham was a trainer who built his success from scratch. His was a one-horse operation when he started, which meant he also acted as a jockeys' agent to pay the bills. It was a chance meeting with the singer Bing Crosby in 1937, when he was 24, that changed his life. Crosby was involved in setting up the San Diego racetrack at the time and as well as loaning Whittingham money, also later introduced him to Horatio Luro, trainer of Northern Dancer, who subsequently became the world's greatest ever stallion.

It was through his time with Luro that Whittingham learnt to import horses and train them to adapt to US conditions so that they could win the valuable, older-horse prizes. The key to it it, Whittingham always said, was patience. He hated to rush horses into performing tasks they were not yet physically equipped to cope with.

In all, Whittingham was champion American trainer, based on prize money, seven times. He won American racing's equivalent of the Oscars, the Eclipse Awards, three times, for being leading trainer. He also trained seven horses to win equine Eclipse Awards. Whittingham was a man who reckoned that "sleep's overrated" and he was always at his barns to start work by 4am - no matter what time he had retired the night before. Five hours' sleep was regarded as a lie-in. "And I've never had a headache in 73 years," he once said.

For a man of humble origins - he grew up on a ranch near the border with Mexico, the son of a Yorkshire father and Irish mother - he had a glitzy array of owners in his barn. They ranged from the gold magnate Nelson Bunker-Hunt to the singer songwriter Burt Bacharach. When one of Bacharach's horses had been running below form, the owner suggested he should be wormed. Whittingham's response was, "You haven't been turning out too many hits lately, either. Maybe we ought to worm your piano while we're at it!"

Whittingham was a proud family man although he suffered a personal tragedy in 1974 when his son Taylor shot himself aged 21. His other son Michael beat Whittingham to success in the Breeders' Cup series, winning the Classic with Skywalker in 1986. Whittingham's daughter Charlene is married to the prominent racetrack vet Helmuth von Bluecher.

Charles Whittingham, racehorse trainer: born Chula Vista, California 13 April 1913; twice married (one son, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Pasadena, California 20 April 1999.

Comments