REMEMBERING THE ”˜BALD EAGLE.’ Whenever the Kentucky Derby approaches, I can’t help but think about Charlie Whittingham, the famed horse trainer affectionately known as the "Bald Eagle."
My first encounter with this horseman for all seasons was in 1985. Those were the days when Caesars Palace tossed a three- or four-day SPORT OF KINGS party. The blast always took place in early December. Decembers ”” then ”” were slow until New Year’s Eve.
Invitees included owners, trainers, jockeys and big bettors. It was a time when casinos used generosity as a marketing tool. Everyone on the guest list was COMPED. RFB (room/food/beverage) were the three love letters that everyone wanted behind their name at check-in. Attendees were mostly from tracks in California.
That was the occasion when I first met Charlie. At the time, the Hall of Fame horse handler had tasted nearly every plum racing had to offer. Except the sweetest of all ”” the Kentucky Derby.
Little did any of us know that would change in less than five months. A horse named Ferdinand gave the Bald Eagle his first Derby winner at the tender age of 73. All this came into play when a Big Player known as Bill Bravo tossed his own private party during the Sport of Kings bash. BB had a two-story fantasy suite at Caesars. He liked to play blackjack, but he loved to play the ponies. Bill invited a few friends and a number of racetrackers to his private bash. Charlie was among the guests.
Across the years and across the board, I have been around a number of trainers. When Bill Thayer introduced me to Whittingham, I was grateful, but not necessarily impressed. It wasn’t until I saw Charlie toss down a few vodka martinis that my eyes began to open. At another time I, too, had a love affair with brain dimmers.
Thayer warned Charlie that I was a newspaperman. The trainer smiled. He extended his hand in friendship. We shook and a new relationship was formed. Whittingham ”” the Joe DiMaggio of horse racing ”” was a real person. I liked that. It must have showed because the famous trainer talked freely. He told me he had nothing against writers, especially those who understood that trainers can’t win every race. We laughed. Since he opened the door about winning races, I walked in.
"How did the Derby avoid you all these years?" I asked.
Charlie folded his hands together, one on top of the other. It was a familiar Whittingham gesture. He also wrinkled his brow and put on a serious face. Very gently he whispered, "It ain’t over ’til it’s over."
When he saw me hanging on his words, he slid his arm around me and winked.
It was the wink that did it. In my mind, Charlie Whittingham was telling me that the Run for the Roses would not elude him for much longer.
I stayed in touch with Charlie throughout the Santa Anita meeting. That’s when the name Ferdinand came into play. When he announced he was sending Ferdinand to Churchill Downs for the first Saturday in May, my ears pricked up. Hall of Famers don’t send horses to the Derby unless they think they have a chance. It had been years since the last time he entered a horse in the Derby. The voice inside me began singing. The tune grew louder when the 73-year-old trainer told of using 54-year-old Bill Shoemaker to ride. That was it. I began betting Ferdinand in the future book. By the time the horse loaded into the starting gate at Churchill, I had all the tickets my money could buy.
In those days, Caesars’ annual Derby party was held in the old Circus Maximus showroom. My friends and I were given a booth up front. Right across the aisle sat Terry Lanni and the Caesars brass. By the time the field turned for home, I was out of the booth rooting with both feet on the ground. It was a thrill I’ll take to the finish line. And, at the Derby finish line Ferdinand got the roses. I always knew hope springs eternal. Seeing Ferdinand cross the wire first it was sheer joy that sprung me from the ground high into the air.
Later, Lanni would comment: "Chuck, you must have made a big bet on Ferdinand, but you could have won a bigger bet from me that you couldn’t jump that high in the air."
I hope Terry Lanni wasn’t watching when I went to cash. The cashier at the temporary betting window ran out of money. They had to send to the cage for fresh.
I told this story to Charlie Whittingham so many times that he probably got tired of hearing it. But, it never showed. He was a humble man. He told me it made him feel good that I would have so much faith in him, Ferdinand and Shoe.
A few years later (1989), when he won his second Derby with Sunday Silence, I was there, too. But, lest you get the false impression that I was betting on anything Charlie sent to the Derby post, read on.
In 1994 I bet with both fists against Charlie’s long shot Strodes Creek, who finished second. I bet on the winner ”” a Nick Zito charge named Go For Gin.
Charles Edward Whittingham died at the age of 86 three years ago. This year, let’s raise a vodka martini to the Bald Eagle. The Sport of Kings lost a real prince of a king.