At the age of 68, Charles Whittingham is the leading trainer in America, so his views on mandatory early retirement may be understandable. But he thinks the way that most thoroughbreds are campaigned hard early in their lives and then retired early is ridiculously unnatural.

A typical good racehorse literally will have been put out to pasture by the time he turns 5. To Whittingham, this makes no sense. "For a work horse," he points out, "the prime of life would be 7 years of age. You see horses at the Grand National running till they're 12 or 13."

A typical Whittingham 5-year-old is Galaxy Libra. At the ages of 2, 3 and 4, he was relatively undistinguished. This year, however, he has already earned $488,280, and on Saturday he will be the United States' leading representative in the $250,000 Washington, D.C. International at Laurel.

From the outset of his career, Whittingham began to develop the distinctive philosophy that would help earn him a place in the Racing Hall of Fame. He grew up near the old Tijuana Race Track and aspired to be a jockey, but his size made him decide to pursue a career as a trainer, instead. In 1934, he became an assistant to another future Hall of Famer, Horatio Luro.

It was Luro's philosophy that "you don't squeeze the lemon dry," and under his tutelage, Whittingham learned the virtues of patience in handling horses. "It's the same as with kids who pitch baseball a lot when they're young and their arms go out. Once in a while, you may find one who's tough enough to take it, but not many."

Whittingham started his own stable after serving with the Marines in World War II, and evidently handled his owners with military discipline. Owners of thoroughbreds customarily demand action and quick returns on their investment. They didn't get these things with Whittingham. He would rarely race 2-year-olds; he would rarely consider running horses in the 3-year-old classics. Owners would be paying two or three years' of bills before the Whittingham horses became productive as 4- and 5- and 6-year-olds.

But the owners didn't rebel, because Whittingham's patience paid such handsome dividends. He has won more stakes races than any trainer in history. He developed great champions like Ack Ack and Cougar II. He has been America's top money-winning trainer in five different years.

Whittingham not only trains for many of the wealthiest and most successful owners on the West Coast, but frequently gets top horses sent to him from abroad. A foreign owner who wanted to give an older turf horse a chance in the United States would think first of Whittingham as a possible trainer.

That is how he got Galaxy Libra. Bred in Ireland, the colt won two of eight starts in England before he was sent to California. "He had been quite a consistent horse and we thought highly of him," Whittingham said. "But he needed time, and I had plenty of other horses to run." So he gave Galaxy Libra all the time he needed; the colt didn't start competing in earnest until late in his 4-year-old season.

This year, he won major stakes on the West Coast, then came East to win the prestigious Man o' War Stakes at Belmont. He was favored to duplicate that triumph in the Turf Classic at Aqueduct, but finished second behind April Run, the filly who probably will be favored in the International.

Whittingham is not a habitual excuse-maker, but he said, "I thought he was the best horse that day. He was pinched back and shuffled back to last, and then the leaders pulled back to a walking pace. He was getting to April Run at the finish."

Galaxy Libra may be able to avenge that defeat Saturday and provide further evidence that life begins at 5.