INGLEWOOD, CALIF. -- Charles Whittingham trains and campaigns his horses in accordance with his own views of the sport, not anybody else's. He has rarely taken part in Triple Crown races and has won only one of them. Nor does he take much interest in stakes for 2-year-olds.
But when the ex-marine sets his sights on an objective, he can overwhelm it. He has captured the West's major dirt race, the Santa Anita Handicap, seven times; its most famous turf race, the San Juan Capistrano, 13 times; the Hollywood Gold Cup eight times.
It appears that Whittingham has directed this same kind of attention to the 1987 Breeders' Cup. The 74-year-old hall-of-famer will saddle nine starters at Hollywood Park Saturday. He has legitimate contenders in five of the events, two of them solid favorites -- Infinidad and Ferdinand. Conceivably, Whittingham could win more money than any trainer ever earned in a single day.
His seriousness about this undertaking is readily apparent. Journalists who remembered a jovial, relaxed, expansive Whittingham from his recent visit to the Kentucky Derby have seen at Hollywood a man who is utterly intense and preoccupied. Even one of his employes joked, "We ought to put a tranquilizer in Charlie's cup."
Of all the horses Whittingham will saddle on Saturday, Infinidad best embodies the trainer's distinctive approach to the game. The mare was imported from Chile last year, and didn't look like much more than a high-grade allowance runner. Even after she turned 5 she wasn't able to win a stakes in the early months of this year.
Other trainers might have given up on her at this point and sent her to stud. But Whittingham is never in a hurry; he doesn't force horses to conform to his own schedule. "When a horse comes from South America," he said, "it takes a while for them to adjust. It's a different time zone and a different hemisphere."
Infinidad finally responded to Whittingham's patient handling. She reeled off three straight stakes victories this summer -- including a runaway at the Breeders' Day Distaff distance of 1 1/4 miles -- then finished third against a tough field of males. At an age when most of her top-class contemporaries have already been retired, Infinidad is just hitting her peak. She appears to be a standout pick to beat her five rivals in the $1 million Distaff.
Rivlia, who is part of Whittingham's three-horse entry in the Turf, followed a similar pattern. He was a moderate performer in Europe; he was one for 11 as a 4-year-old last year; he was having trouble winning in allowance company early this season. But in the last few months Rivlia has found himself, winning two Grade I stakes on the turf. After earning only $100,000 during what are normally considered the prime years of a horse's life, he has won more than $600,000 as a 5-year-old and he could add to that total significantly on Saturday.
Because he has made his reputation principally with older horses, Whittingham surprised many people just by showing up at Churchill Downs with the 3-year-old Ferdinand last year. He surprised the whole racing world by winning the Kentucky Derby. But while Ferdinand may have appeared to be a radical departure from his trainer's modus operandi, he really wasn't. He wouldn't show his true talent till late in life, either.
Ferdinand's Derby victory was hardly a brilliant effort. Detractors said he was merely the best of an undistinguished lot. Whittingham said: Just wait. He was right.
Ferdinand blossomed as a 4-year-old, winning the Hollywood Gold Cup this summer, giving his trainer plenty of options for the fall. "We could have gone to New York for the Jockey Club Gold Cup," Whittingham said, "but we didn't want to do it, because we were going to try to win the Breeders' Cup."
It is obvious from a glance at Ferdinand's past performances that Whittingham has prepared him single-mindedly for this one objective. He has passed innumerable big-money opportunities and raced only twice since June, in spots that were clearly designed as tuneups. Ferdinand won them both authoritatively enough that he will be the solid favorite in the Classic.
If he succeeds, the man who has already won more stakes and more purse money than any other trainer in history will add further to his legend.