After Ferdinand won the Kentucky Derby, jockey Bill Shoemaker was understandably the cynosure of the media, but the triumph truly belonged to Charles Whittingham, the great trainer who was accomplishing one of the few feats that had eluded him in an illustrious career.
Whittingham never had won a Triple Crown race before, but this omission was not so much a failure as a personal statement. His indifference to the Kentucky Derby epitomized his philosophy of training thoroughbreds, his distinctive approach to the game. But after winning more stakes than any trainer in history, after dominating the California tracks as if they were his private fiefdoms, Whittingham deserved the popular national recognition that can come only from the Triple Crown events.
Unlike other great trainers whose success may seem due to some magic touch with horses, Whittingham's formula is open for anybody to copy. His whole "secret" is patience.
Whittingham broke into the sport with another eventual Hall of Fame horseman, Horatio Luro, who contributed an enduring axiom to his profession: "Don't squeeze the lemon." He meant, of course, that trainers shouldn't try to get too much out of their horses, shouldn't ask too much of them too soon. Whittingham has raised the nonsqueezing of the lemon to an art form.
He rarely runs 2-year-olds. He doesn't even ask much of his 3-year-olds unless, like Ferdinand, they convince him that they are very special. The Kentucky Derby rarely tempted him. "Everybody pounds the Derby into your head," he said, "but I think the reason I've had so many good 4- and 5-year-olds is that I didn't send them all to the Derby."
At the ages of 4 and 5, when many good horses already have been sent into retirement, Whittingham's horses blossom. Now that they are mature enough and strong enough for the rigors of racing at classic distances, the trainer gets plenty of mileage out of them (in contrast with the many youngsters who go through the Triple Crown grind and are knocked out by the experience).
Whittingham is a master at preparing horses to run a distance, and he is especially adept on the turf. The type of race he loves is not the Kentucky Derby, but the grueling 1 3/4-mile San Juan Capistrano on the turf at Santa Anita. Whittingham has won it 12 times. In addition to a training philosophy that has been the foundation of his success, Whittingham brings to his profession a genuine, unwavering enthusiasm for the game.
Amidst the pressure and chaos of Derby week, Whittingham's mood almost could be described as joyous. Anybody who talked to the trainer could sense that he was loving every minute of it.
Even on the morning after Ferdinand's triumph, he was at the barn at the crack of dawn, as he always is. "I sleep five hours a night," he said. "The only time in my life I wasn't coming to the barns in the morning was when I was in the Marine Corps, and I couldn't sleep late then, either."
During his tour of duty in the South Pacific, Whittingham contracted malaria and lost enough of his hair that he finally started shaving his skull and gained his nickname: the Bald Eagle. It is especially fitting, for Whittingham projects a formidable physical presence. Even at the age of 73, he looks like a man you wouldn't want to get in a fight with.
But he still has a soft heart when it comes to a guy named Shoemaker. Whittingham started putting Shoemaker on some of his horses when the jockey was an apprentice. The Shoe-and-Charlie team dominated West Coast racing in the 1950s and 1960s, even into the 1970s, but because of the different natures of their professions, Whittingham remained at the height of his powers while Shoemaker inevitably slipped.
Shoemaker's day-to-day performances have deteriorated so badly that savvy California handicappers view his presence as a good reason for not betting a horse. Many Marylanders still remember how he blew the 1982 Preakness on Linkage and returned here with an almost-as-inept performance aboard Taylor's Special in 1984.
But Whittingham insists, "There still aren't many riders any better."
If Whittingham were as tough-minded as he looks, he probably would have used a younger jockey for his first shot at the Derby in 26 years. But because of his loyalty to Shoemaker, the jockey got the chance to score one of the most dramatic, emotional victories of his career. It surely was one of his last hurrahs, but Whittingham figures to have many more.