In an era when most trainers try to develop horses quickly, win races quickly and retire them to stud quickly, Charles Whittingham is a hopeless anachronism.

Yet none of his contemporaries has been heard to utter the words, "Poor old Charlie; he's out of touch." They couldn't very well say that about a man who received the Eclipse Award last week as the outstanding trainer in America; who has been the country's top money-winning trainer in seven different years; who has won more stakes races than any other member of his profession.

Other great trainers seem to owe their success to some special inborn genius; Whittingham owes his largely to a philosophy he has embraced for much of his career. He believes that the way to maximize a horse's productivity is to let him develop slowly, let him mature; to wait, wait, wait. And then when the horse is 4 or 5 or 6 years old, when most of his contemporaries are already retired, Whittingham starts winning big races with him.

Whittingham has been training horses in California since the 1930s, although when he was dealing with cheap stock in those early days he didn't have the luxury of taking so much time with them.

He left the track to serve with the Marines in World War II, and when he returned he went to work for Horatio Luro, a legendary horseman whose maxim that a trainer should not "squeeze the lemon" prematurely is a watchword of the profession. Whittingham started making his reputation in the 1950s, when he trained the champion colt Porterhouse, and as he did he got to train higher-quality horses who lent themselves to his methods.

Whittingham horses rarely win sprints. They rarely win their first starts. They rarely win at the age of 2. In all these situations, the trainer is looking ahead to distant and more important objectives. Whittingham horses usually don't even accomplish great feats at 3, the age that is the be-all and end-all of a horse's career, as far as most other trainers are concerned.

If any ordinary trainer had a 3-year-old like Estupendo in his barn, he would probably be thinking about the Santa Anita and Kentucky derbies. The colt rallied from last place to win an allowance race here the other day in a fashion that suggested he may be one of the most promising members of his generation in the West.

Yet when Whittingham was asked his plans for the colt, he said, "We'll let him work through his conditions," meaning that he'd keep running in allowance races for a while. The trainer didn't sound as if he was especially interested in the animal's near-term future.

Estupendo will probably make his mark when he is 4 or older, the way most Whittingham horses do.

Under Whittingham's handling, Ack Ack won the horse-of-the-year title in 1971 when he was 5. The next year, Cougar II was voted the champion grass horse at the age of 6. Whittingham gained a justified reputation as the country's best developer and manager of older distance-runners, and it was a reputation that was to pay him dividends as American racing underwent a great change.

As the shipping of horses from one country to another has become routine, horses who have proved themselves in Europe or South America frequently are sent to campaign in this country. The logical place to send them is California, where they can run on the grass year-round. And the logical man to train them is that specialist in older distance runners, Charlie Whittingham.

"The European horses don't have much trouble acclimating themselves here," he said. "They've got to get used to our type of tracks, but good, tough horses can do it."

Whittingham managed a good, tough import, Exceller, through a brilliant 1978 campaign that he completed by beating Seattle Slew. Last year, he trained Perrault to win the Eclipse Award as the best turf horse. Now, Whittingham said, he has a horse named The Wonder who will be heard from later in the season. Of course, the trainer is in no rush to get him to the races.

Whittingham's continued success with his mature horses has had little influence on the rest of the racing world. Most other trainers are happy to pursue the big purses offered in 2-year-old races. They train and campaign their young 3-year-olds hard to win the Triple Crown races.

But such a schedule takes a terrible toll on young horses, and their careers are often finished at the age of 3. Maybe Whittingham isn't out of step with the rest of the world. Maybe the world is out of step with him.