Saturday’s feature at Santa Anita Park, the 51st edition of the Charles Whittingham Handicap honors the late Hall of Fame trainer who won the race seven times in his legendary career.
Whittingham won the stakes run under a few names – the Hollywood Invitational and Hollywood Turf Handicap – since its inception at Hollywood Park in 1969 with Fiddle Isle (1970), Cougar II (1971), Dahlia (1976), Exceller (1978), Exploded (1982), Erins Isle (1983) and Rivlia (1987).
Born in California in 1913, Whittingham worked for Horatio Luro, served in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II and set up his own stable in 1950. He won 252 stakes races and became the all-time leader at Hollywood and Santa Anita. He joined racing’s Hall of Fame in 1974, won the Kentucky Derby with Ferdinand and Sunday Silence and won three Eclipse Awards as outstanding trainer. Whittingham died in 1999, and is remembered every year with the turf stakes held Saturday.
Some of his peers, proteges and others in racing talked about him this week. Editor's Note: This was from the May 23 edition of our online newspaper The 2020 Special. If you missed it, you can read it here.
• Darrel McHargue cantered Sirlad back to be unsaddled, checked the toteboard for what he already knew, shaking his head at the fractions.
45 3/5. 1:09 3/5. 1:34 1/5. 1:58 2/5.
Sirlad, trained by Whittingham, had just run as hard and as fast as he could, shadowing Triple Crown winner Affirmed for every stride, every furlong of the 1979 Hollywood Gold Cup. No horse had ever finished in front of Affirmed at 1 1/4 miles, no horse had ever pushed him that fast, that far. A Group 1 winner in France and a Grade 2 winner here, the 5-year-old forced Affirmed from his outside while being forced by a mid-race, three-wide attack from Text. Sirlad shook off Text and clung to Affirmed all the way to the eighth pole, finally, fittingly, falling sway by three-quarters of a length in Affirmed’s 19th career victory.
“Sirlad was a big elongated horse and we broke out of the gate and I went head and head with Affirmed the whole way,” McHargue said. “There wasn’t a separation of a head or anything. Sirlad runs the whole way, he just gets outrun by a better horse.”
McHargue walked off the track with Whittingham, beginning the Pavlovian exchange between jockey and trainer.
“He ran a great race, Charlie, he never gave up…”
Whittingham listened and looked at those bullet holes on the Hollywood Park toteboard.
“You know we probably should have made him go faster in the beginning…” Whittingham said.
McHargue, who didn’t ride often for Whittingham, began to counter.
“Charlie, we were running down there, it was fast, for three quarters of a mile, it was fast…”
Astute on horseback and on foot, McHargue kept the rest to himself.
“God, what kind of horses has this guy been around when he can say that and think that…we should have made him go faster,” McHargue said to himself. “Man, how much faster can your horses go? I want to ride for you.”
• Chris McCarron knew one thing when he rode for Whittingham.
“He never ran a short horse,” McCarron said. “By that I mean a horse that would get so tired that he wouldn’t advance the next time he ran because it was a harrowing experience.”
Knowing they would never be short, McCarron won the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Sunday Silence, partnered champion Flawlessy to 13 wins, including nine Grade 1 stakes wins, and steered so many others for Whittingham. They included Rivlia, a son of Riverman and Dahlia. Rivlia notched Whittingham’s seventh and final victory in the Hollywood Invitational Handicap, the stakes now known as the Charles Whittingham (Dahlia won his third).
“Charlie knew how to get a horse ready for a specific day,” McCarron said. “He could really understand what it takes to get a horse fit enough to run a distance of ground even if they hadn’t run in a while. They might need a race to build up their lung capacity but, leg-wise, that man never ran a short horse.”
And, of course, you ask the obvious question to an observant Hall of Famer about an incomparable Hall of Famer. How did he know?
“His dedication and his observation to the sport,” McCarron said. “He thought like a horse. He put himself in the horse’s position, ‘What would I want? What would I like?’ He got so much out of his horses because he treated them so kindly.”
As for pressure, nonexistent.
“He was easy to ride for, as far as someone with the amount of pressure he had on him all the time because of the all the nice horses he had. He never seemed to show it,” McCarron said. “He was very loyal and very understanding, if things didn’t go right during the running of the race and you could explain it in a way that was completely understandable then you would ride the horse back.”
• Shug McGaughey walked back to his barn in the cold night air after the 1988 Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs. McGaughey had won the Breeders’ Cup Distaff with Personal Ensign but was stung with two seconds, Easy Goer in the Juvenile and an agonizing one in the finale when Seeking The Gold couldn’t run down Alysheba in the Classic. The Kentucky-born trainer walked and grimaced, torturing himself over what could have been, what might have been...
From behind him, a voice bellowed.
“Hey, boy, what kind of day did you have today?”
“Won one, two seconds…”
“Man, you had a good day, huh?”
McGaughey, 37, turned and saw Whittingham, 75. They walked back to the barn together, nothing else was said, but a lot was learned.
“I had my head down, sometimes you have a second and think you didn’t have a good day, I always think about that little bit of a conversation we had on a cold, dark night,” McGaughey said. “The Classic was just over with, we made a good run at Alysheba and just weren’t good enough. If he had won…but that all goes with it.”
A year later, McGaughey and Whittingham would meet again, on the sport’s biggest stage, with the sport’s biggest stars. Sunday Silence and Easy Goer squared off in the Triple Crown. Sunday Silence won the first two, Easy Goer the third. It was sport at its finest.
“We went through the whole thing together, we would have a drink or stop and talk, there was never any animosity. There could have been some gas thrown on the fire with the East Coast against the West Coast and the media was playing that up to some extent, but he would never allow anything like that,” McGaughey said. “I was a young guy and he was the old pro. He couldn’t have been more of a gentleman or a nicer guy to me. After Easy Goer won the Belmont, he stayed at the Garden City and celebrated our victory when he got beat in the Triple Crown. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
By November, the rivalry was on the skillet again in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Sunday Silence did it again, staving off Easy Goer again.
“I remember at the draw, we drew the inside and he drew the outside, when they called him up there to talk, he said, ‘I think I got the best of Shug on the draw.’ When we broke, we ducked in a little bit. He was right again,” McGaughey said. “I was fortunate enough to watch, some firsthand but also from afar, how he handled horses, how he got there and how he handled himself. What a guy. What a trainer.”
• Everybody knows future Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher learned under the tutelage of Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas. But a summer spent at Hollywood Park in 1988 left an indelible mark on the sport’s all-time earnings leader as well.
The mark came early. Early in the summer stint and early in the morning. Pletcher stopped by the barn to introduce himself and find out what time he was to start the next morning.
That’s all Whittingham said.
Pletcher knew early from his horse-training dad. The Texan arrived at Whittingham’s barn at 4:15, figuring that would impress his summer boss. Whittingham was already there, looking in every feed tub, feeling every leg.
“That’s what I took from him, there is no substitute for hard work, the commitment to the job,” Pletcher said.
In 1988, Whittingham was rolling, Pletcher was crawling.
“To have the opportunity to work for a legend…I didn’t know what to expect, I showed up there with no real expectations, I was willing to hot walk or whatever it took.”
On his first morning, Whittingham handed Pletcher an electric blanket and told him to put it on “that horse there.” That horse there was blazed-faced Judge Angelucci, three-time Grade 1 stakes winner and earner of $1.5 million.
“I was like, ‘Man, I’ve never been around horses like this,’ ” said Pletcher, who is now around horses like that all the time. “That’s part of what you learn, too, even the great horses you have to in some ways treat them the same as all of them, don’t be intimidated by that. If you were intimidated, you couldn’t function.”
After a week or so, a groom’s position opened and Pletcher was rubbing four horses for the summer.
At the end of each morning, Whittingham walked around and checked on each horse.
Pletcher held his pan, sieving for Whittingham’s gold.
“Pretty much his routine before he left every morning was to walk around and check on each horse, whenever he did that I tried to make a point to ask him a question,” Pletcher said. “He was always very generous with his time and kind to answer. That was it for me, just to learn as much as I could.”
By June, Pletcher was in the winner’s circle with Peace, a son of Naskra, for the Cinema Handicap at Hollywood Park’s first Friday night card. Clint Eastwood presented the trophy. By the end of the summer, Pletcher went back east, writing a letter to Whittingham when he got home, thanking him for the opportunity.
In November, Whittingham arrived at Churchill Downs for the Breeders’ Cup (that one where McGaughey had his good day). Pletcher ducked into the barn, hoping to say hello.
“This guy won’t even remember who I am…” Pletcher said to himself as he passed Breeders’ Cup Classic starter Lively One.
Whittingham walked up to his former pupil and shook his hand.
“Thank you for sending that letter, Todd.”
Pletcher still marvels over the exchange.
“Literally, the first thing he did was walk up to me and thank me for my letter,” Pletcher said. “He was just that kind of guy.”