Hearing the crackle of a cellophane wrapper, Sunday Silence bounced to a stop in the middle of his shed, raised his head regally and twice stomped a forefoot, as if about to address his small audience at Belmont Park. Obviously speechless, however, he simply nickered as Charles Whittingham, his 76-year-old trainer, finished unwrapping the small disc of red-and-white candy and held it out in the palm of his hand. The colt swallowed it in a gulp.
"He's the peppermint kid," said Whittingham, the Bald Eagle of American racing.
"He's on the muscle today!" cried Pam Mabes, Sunday Silence's exercise rider, as the colt led her around the shed, stopping here, kicking his heels there, bowing his neck, playing and fussing on a day given over to walking and eating and resting.
"Can't stand a day off, can he?" said Whittingham. "Look at him! He hasn't missed an oat all spring, and he eats like he's going to the electric chair." The colt's brown coat, so dark it seems almost black, shone in the afternoon light with a luster of radiant health.
Sunday Silence did not look like a horse weathering so rigorous a campaign as the Triple Crown. On May 6 he won the 1¼-mile Kentucky Derby, beating his archrival, Easy Goer, by 2½ lengths. Two weeks later, at Pimlico, he lost momentum when he was pinched off around the far turn but then in a furious, whip-cracking battle through the stretch, fought back to win the 1 3/16-mile Preakness, beating Easy Goer by a nose. Now here he was, a week later, fit and ready to do battle once again with Easy Goer in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, the longest of the Triple Crown races, at 1½ miles. And ready, perhaps, to become the 12th horse to sweep the three races and the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
"I know how to get a horse to go a mile and a half," Whittingham says. "I've won the San Juan Capistrano [Handicap] 14 times, and that's a mile and three quarters. I've won a lot of distance races in my life. I've been galloping this horse long all spring. He could run from here to Baltimore today. I'll have him ready. He's the peppermint kid. I'm the mile-and-a-half man!"
Whittingham is the most accomplished trainer of racehorses in America, and the nature and volume of his records suggest that he may be the greatest trainer of the last half century. Only Woody Stephens, his 75-year-old contemporary and counterpart on the East Coast—the trainer of five straight Belmont winners and 10 Eclipse Award winners—has a comparable place in the sport's history. Through last week Whittingham had won 552 stakes races—a career record—since June 10, 1953, the day he saddled a horse named Porterhouse to win the $30,700 National Stallion Stakes at Belmont, his first stakes victory. Of those victories, 218 have been in races worth more than $100,000, another record.
For most of the last 33 years—since he and his wife, Peggy, moved permanently from Long Island to Sierra Madre, Calif., at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains near Santa Anita—Whittingham has been the dominant force in Southern California racing, especially in the major long-distance races for older horses. In addition to his San Juan Capistrano triumphs, he has won the 1¼-mile Santa Anita Handicap seven times and the 1¼-mile Hollywood Gold Cup eight times. He has won the rich Oak Tree Invitational, a 1½-mile romp on grass, on nine occasions. He avoids the big races for 2-year-olds because, he says, horses that age are too young and soft-boned to endure the stress of hard competition. And so his barn is usually filled with gifted older horses, many of them shipped to him by owners from Europe and Australia.
"The one thing about Charlie that strikes me is his patience with a horse," says John Russell, a California trainer. "He's not afraid to get a horse from a foreign land and give him a year to acclimate before he races him."
Patient as he is with his horses, Whittingham himself came to hand very early, as they say at the racetrack, growing up fast on a ranch in Otay, Calif., four miles north of the Mexican border. He never knew his father, who drowned when Charlie was nine months old. When he was six, his mother—remarried and burdened with more children and dawn-to-dusk work on the farm—gave Charlie to her late husband's sister to raise. He grew up on horseback and left school after the eighth grade. "That was far enough for me," he says.
By then Whittingham was following his brother Joe to the old Tijuana racetrack, where Joe was a jockey. The late 1920s were wild times to grow up on a racetrack, and Tijuana was a devil-may-care place. Whittingham remembers a trainer, getting ready to run a horse, cutting a quantity of heroin in half, drying off the horse's tongue with a rag and rubbing the heroin on the dry spot.
"What are you gonna do with the other half?" Charlie asked.
"I'm gonna put it on my tongue," the cowboy replied. "I got a big bet on this sucker!"
For Whittingham, who was trying to eke out a living on the racetrack walking hots, grooming horses and even working as a jockey's agent, the Great Depression brought only hardship and hunger. "We used to steal milk off people's porches, mix it with bran—we had plenty of bran for the horses—and eat it," he says. "Do that, but don't get too far away from the toilet, or else. Stuff went right through you."
In November 1936, Whittingham arrived at Narragansett Park in Rhode Island with a one-horse stable consisting of a $1,000 claimer named Overstimulate. Desperate to raise enough cash to get back to California before winter set in, Whittingham entered his gelding in a $1,000 claiming race with a winner's purse of $750. He bet his last $100 on his horse and then sloshed to the infield to watch him run. "It was raining and sleeting and muddy and dark," Whittingham recalls. "Last race of the day."
Charging off the pace, Overstimulate grabbed the lead coming to the eighth pole. "I was leaning forward, trying to get him home, and I leaned so far I fell into a rain ditch," Whittingham says. "But he won." Whittingham picked himself up and, wringing wet, collected $640 at the window. That and the $750 purse gave him more than enough to get both horse and trainer home. The following summer he showed up at Del Mar, north of San Diego, with Overstimulate and a cross-eyed coyote named Polo. "I bought the coyote off an Indian for five bucks," he says. "He was a helluva watchdog, a mean little stall-walker, but a pretty little sonuvabitch."
Whittingham was at a turning point in his life. He had met singer Bing Crosby, who had built Del Mar, and thus began a friendship that would extend over decades. "It was like a big family, that racetrack," says Whittingham. "When I was broke, Bing always lent me money." Crosby also introduced him to Horatio Luro, the dashing Argentine trainer, and Whittingham went to work as Luro's assistant.
"He taught me patience with horses," Whittingham says. "The Argentines were great for giving their horses long gallops. They kept their horses thinner. They didn't run as often, and they ran a lot of long races."
Luro also taught him the aphorism on which Whittingham has based his entire training philosophy, the one warning horsemen not to ask too much of a horse: "Don't squeeze the lemon! You won't have any juice left."
Whittingham and Luro were doing well together when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Whittingham enlisted in the Marines and spent 2½ years island-hopping in the South Pacific. He returned virtually unscathed—except for premature balding—but in possession of an odd epigram that his sergeant used to shout when the going got tough, which Whittingham repeats to this day before big races: "We'll soon find out where Molly put the peaches."
While in North Carolina, convalescing from a case of malaria he had contracted in the South Seas, Whittingham met his future wife, Peggy Boone, from Rocky Mount, who was just 19 years old; Whittingham was 32. A sprinter in those days, Whittingham moved fast, and Peggy's mother begged her not to be hasty. "You don't know anything about him," her mother said. "What does he do when he's not in the Marines?"
"I think he's a horse trader," Peggy said.
"A horse trader?" her mother cried. "Argghhh...!"
Peggy and Charlie were married three weeks after they met, and upon his discharge from the service, Whittingham rejoined Luro's outfit. In 1948, they won the Santa Anita Handicap with a mount named Talon, and not long after, at Luro's urging, Whittingham set out on his own, taking over a string of horses for Mary Elizabeth Whitney Tippett's Llangollen Farm. Porterhouse was only the first of many stakes winners that he saddled for her.
Over the years no man in California racing has been more responsible than Whittingham for gaining the eastern racing establishments grudging respect, and two races in September 1956 were crucial to that respect. California-bred Swaps, the winner of the 1955 Kentucky Derby, was racing the wind at Hollywood Park and ran three world-record times there that summer. The colt was seeking to become the first California-bred horse to win the title of Horse of the Year. His rival for that honor was the pride of the East, Nashua. One of the horses Swaps had been thrashing all summer was the Whittingham-trained Mister Gus. The eastern chorus was predictable: Swaps hasn't beaten anything. Who's Mister Gus, anyway?
So Whittingham brought Mister Gus, as well as his top 2-year-old, Nashville, to Belmont Park, and he made his point: On the afternoon of Sept. 24, Nashville whipped the East's leading 2-year-old, the previously undefeated Bold Ruler, and five days later Mister Gus soundly defeated Nashua in the 1¼-mile Woodward Stakes. "Mister Gus couldn't warm Swaps up, but he beat Nashua in the Woodward," Whittingham says. At year's end, with that roundabout boost from Whittingham, Swaps was named America's Horse of the Year.
Fifteen years later Whittingham had his own national champion. He took a confirmed sprinter, Ack Ack, patiently trained him to run longer races, and made him into the 1971 Horse of the Year off wins in the Santa Anita Handicap and the Hollywood Gold Cup.
The horse business has made Whittingham a millionaire, but his life has been touched by tragedy. He and Peggy had three children—Michael, 43, now an accomplished trainer in his own right; Charlene, 38, an interior designer; and a younger son, Taylor.
In 1974, while mired in a life of using and dealing cocaine, 21-year-old Taylor died from an apparently accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound. "If I'd known then what I know now, I might have been able to get him help," Whittingham says. "No one knew about cocaine back then."
He returned to the racetrack following the funeral and carried on. "I'm not an emotional person," he says.
"I've seen Charlie cry only once," Peggy says. "We were sitting at home one day, reminiscing about things, and he started talking about how his mother gave him to his aunt. He said, 'I liked my aunt, but I couldn't understand why I couldn't stay with my mother.' He started to cry. I think that had been bothering him all those years."
The man has been like a kid again these last few weeks, hovering over Sunday Silence, giving him candy, picking clover and tossing it into a corner of the stall. In 1960, after Llangollen's Divine Comedy finished ninth in the Kentucky Derby, Whittingham vowed never again to bring a horse to the Derby unless he had a solid chance to win it. He waited 26 years, until 1986, before hauling Ferdinand to Louisville. He was Whittingham's first Derby winner. Now Whittingham has his first Triple Crown candidate. He is loving every minute of it.
The question, of course, is: Did the Derby and Preakness victories squeeze too much from the lemon? The Bald Eagle doesn't think so. He reckons that, in those final 220 yards of the Belmont, Sunday Silence will at last show the world where Molly put the peaches.