There are a lot of guys who call themselves horse trainers," Charlie Whittingham has declared on occasion, "but I am a trainer of racehorses. There is a difference. It is not how many events you win in a year, but that you try to win the good races."
Whittingham's frank opinion of himself—as the best trainer around—is shared by many. "Some of us call him the Pope," says Dr. Jock Jocoy, a West Coast veterinarian. The nickname comes in part from his pronouncements but also because Whittingham has a reputation for having time for everyone, rich and poor. Sometimes, intimates Mrs. Mary Florsheim Jones, Charlie has less time for the rich than for the poor. In periodic fits of pique at the way Whittingham has been known to ignore her wishes—and her advice—the owner of the handicap star Cougar II has confided to friends that she would gladly take the horse away from his stable if she could find a better trainer. She hasn't yet.
Winning stakes races has become such a habit for Whittingham that long ago he lost count of the number his horses have captured. He says vaguely, "I don't know for sure, but I may have won more stakes than any active trainer, and maybe more $100,000 stakes, too." The record shows that he is correct—with a total of 185 stakes, of which 32 were hundred-granders. Whittingham also has taken the national money-winning title for three consecutive years (in 1972 his horses earned $1.7 million) and with the likes of Cougar, Quack and Groshawk in his barn at Santa Anita he has an excellent chance of making it four in a row in 1973.
His detractors claim Whittingham would not have been so successful had he campaigned his stable in the East against stronger competition. "I've won a Futurity, a Woodward, a Beldame and a lot of those stakes back there," growls Whittingham. "On one afternoon at Belmont Park in 1956 I sent out Mister Gus to beat Nashua in the Woodward and Nashville to beat Bold Ruler in the Anticipation Purse. Not bad for a 'Western' trainer, was it? There's a lot of money being offered in California and there's nothing to stop those New York guys from coming out here to try to beat me."
Jockey Bill Shoemaker is one man who comes quickly to the trainer's defense. (Because he rides so often for Whittingham, Shoe has been called "the best horse in Charlie's barn.") Says the jockey, "I've been around them all from coast to coast, and there's not a finer horseman in the U.S. He understands his horses and treats them like athletes. The reason that Charlie has so many good older horses is because he handles them cautiously when they are young."
When Santa Anita opened for its first season on Christmas Day in 1934, Whittingham was just 21. He had a horse named Plumb Elected on the grounds but was earning his living as a jockey's agent since Plumb Elected never performed with distinction.
"In the next couple of years I got lucky claiming horses," Whittingham recalls. "I began to think I was real smart but then I made mistakes and ended up losing everything." In 1939 he became an assistant to Horatio Luro, a master horseman who has trained two Kentucky Derby winners. "The most important thing I learned from the Se√±or was patience," Whittingham says. That and, perhaps as important, that it was impossible to make money gambling. "Yes, I taught him some things," says Luro. "You must never be in a hurry with horses. Skip a race, I always say. There will be another chance, like a great big roulette wheel. I taught him to train horses with strong, open two-mile gallops, instead of short and fast."
For five years after serving in the Marines in World War II Whittingham worked as Luro's aide. Then, on Horatio's recommendation, he took over the stable of Mary Elizabeth Altemus Whitney Persons Lunn (now Tippett). One of the essentials in becoming a successful trainer is keeping the owner in hand as well as the horse. Liz, as she is known around racetracks, will test any man's patience. To everyone's amazement, Whittingham retained control.
"Charlie's owners understand that they don't tell him where and when to run," says Calumet Farm Trainer Reggie Cornell. E. Barry Ryan, another Whittingham admirer, declares, "Charlie will turn to any owner and say, 'Look, here's a shank and if you don't like what I'm doing, you can take your horse out of here right now.' " Through the years, Liz Tippett has taken several horses away from Whittingham, but none for long.
The partnership of Liz and Whittingham has had notable success, turning out horses such as Woodward winner Mister Gus, Futurity winner Porterhouse and the Santa Anita Handicap winners Corn Husker and Pretense. For Mrs. Jones, Cougar II has won over $800,000. "I owned half of him once," says Whittingham, "but I got mad at Mary one day and told her she could take Cougar and scat. She stayed but bought me out. Considering what he has won since, that turned out to be a pretty expensive mad, didn't it?" For Howard Keck, Whittingham has trained Turkish Trousers, Pinjara, Tell and Makor. For Composer Burt Bacharach, the stakes winner Advance Guard. And for Greer Garson and her husband Buddy Fogelson, the 1971 Horse of the Year, Ack Ack.
Whittingham's stable area does not quite resemble Camp LeJeune, but the discipline is there. There is efficiency and high morale. "My help get along with me and with each other," he says. "If someone can't get along, I kick him out. I have Mexicans, whites, blacks and half a dozen girls working for me—maybe 50 in all." Whittingham chooses his clients with care as stall space becomes available and charges them an average of $20 per day per horse, with shoes, medicine and shipping extra.
Pausing to inspect the legs of a group of horses returning from the track early one morning, Whittingham declared, "Good horses come in all sizes and shapes, and when it comes to conformation you mustn't set your mind on one type. I like a medium-size horse, not a big, thick one. Lighter animals tend to stay sounder longer. But some stay sound that you never expected. If I'm buying a horse, sure, I want to be pleased with his conformation as well as with his bloodlines. But I also want to talk to the man who broke that horse. He can sometimes tell me more than the veterinarian or any pedigree chart.
"There are a lot of fine trainers around: Luro, Elliott Burch, Willard Proctor, Jim Maloney, Buddy Hirsch, Farrell Jones, Reggie Cornell, Pancho Martin. And considering the horses he often has to work with, Allen Jerkens may be the best of the lot.
"But I can't be worried about the other fellow. I have to go my own way and my philosophy is to wait on 2-year-olds. Usually I don't run them until late fall or not at all. You have a better chance to come up with a good horse at 3 if you give them their 2-year-old season to mature. If you don't rest your 2s, you won't have 4- or 5-year-olds, and if you have no older horses you have nothing for the handicap division. Cougar is 7 now. He will run this year, and he's better than ever. Quack was a decent 3-year-old, but if I'd run him in the Kentucky Derby last year it might have cooked him. By saving him, I think he'll turn into a very useful horse. Already there's talk of sending Groshawk to this year's Derby. I won't go unless I feel he has top chance to win."
Some months ago California's supervisor of racing, Jimmy Kilroe, paid Elliott Burch a compliment when he said of the Rokeby Stable trainer, "He is a good manager. He makes very few mistakes." Now he was ready to expand that compliment. "In a way the success of Burch and Whittingham is quite simple: both of them can look at a stable of horses and a calendar and are capable of making a proper program for each horse in the stable in such a way that they have not lost sight of the individual horse or the calendar. That's patience. All the stuff about hard work is one thing, but many people work very hard and don't know what they're doing. Whittingham knows. He is the perfect example of genius rising to its rightful level."