Preakness shows Whittingham's training isn't limited to horses

May 16, 1991|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Evening Sun Staff

Charlie Whittingham, the bald icon of horse racing, won't be at Pimlico on Saturday.

He'll be saddling his Seattle Slew colt, Compelling Sound, who missed the Triple Crown, in the Will Rogers Handicap at Hollywood Park.

But, even though the old Hall of Famer is a coast away, the Whittingham presence will be felt strongly.

Both his son, Michael, and his former top assistant, Rodney Rash, have horses in the Preakness.

Another ex-assistant, Dick Lundy, will saddle heavily favored Opening Verse in the Dixie Handicap.

"It's like old-home week," Michael Whittingham said.

Everybody knows about Charlie Whittingham's meticulous handling of 1989 Preakness winner Sunday Silence. He and the horse mesmerized racing for an entire year with their spirited rivalry against Easy Goer.

But a lot of people probably don't realize the impact Whittingham has had in another area of the industry -- training horsemen, as well as horses.

"Of course, it extends well past the three of us," Rash said. "For example, some of his other assistants, Neil Drysdale and Joe Manzi, became top trainers. And the girl, Laura Deseroux, who picked out my horse, Honor Grades, is another Whittingham protege. Laura doesn't train. But she operates a bloodstock agency with her husband, Emanuel. For my owner Bruce McNall, they have found horses like Trempolino, Saumarez and Golden Pheasant. And that's quite an accomplishment."

For the uninitiated, Trempolino and Saumarez won the Arc d Triomphe, Europe's richest race, and Golden Pheasant won the Arlington Million. Now Deseroux has found a Preakness starter for McNall in the space of a month.

For Michael Whittingham, being the son of racing's most famou trainer has had its advantages.

"But then," he said, "everybody asks the same old question 'What's it like being in the shadow of Charlie Whittingham?'

"And I say, 'Who isn't?' "

Michael, 45, describes himself as a free spirit who was a child o the '60s, which did not always sit well with his father, an ex-Marine.

Michael worked off and on in the Whittingham family shedro since he was 12, with the idea of eventually becoming a veterinarian.

"I had good enough grades in college, but I knew it wasn't fo me," Michael said. "So I called Dad up, shaved off my beard, cut my hair and went to work for him full time."

At various times, he has been his father's top assistant, traine the second and third strings in a stable that can number 100 runners at any given time, and been relegated to the bottom of the totem pole.

But since Michael formed his own stable about 15 years ago he's contributed his bit to the Whittingham family legend. "I don't have a giant, sweeping stable," he said. "But I've won my share of Grade I's, and that includes victories in the Breeders' Cup Classic and Santa Anita Derby [with Skywalker] and in races like the Santa Magarita Handicap and the San Juan Capistrano Handicap, which my father has won 15 times.

"But," he added, "this game is a slow build-up, even for my dad who didn't win the Kentucky Derby until he was in his 70s."

Whadjathink is Michael's first Preakness starter.

As heir to the Whittingham family name, how does he look upo the other assistants who have profited from their association with the Whittingham legacy?

"I'm friends with them all," Michael said. "Rodney, for example, is extremely intense. He's bright and a good horseman. Dad is no whiner. I think he thinks it's fine Rodney left. Dad and I operate separate stables, but I talk to him every day. We sit together at the races. When Sunday Silence came East to run in the Triple Crown, I left my stable for a few days and came with my family to root for him. We had to come and cheer on Charlie. I have my own thoughts and training theories, but I still like to bounce ideas off of him."

Lundy, who left Whittingham after six years to take a private training job with Virginia Kraft Payson, now trains horses like Dinard and Opening Verse for Allen Paulson. Lundy said Whittingham is good about helping his assistants get started on their own.

"He's always been supportive," Lundy said. "He likes to hire assistants from diverse backgrounds. For example, I came right to him from training hunters and jumpers. Neil [Drysdale] came to him from several jobs working on stud farms. He doesn't sit you down and tell you things. You are expected to absorb it, to figure it out on your own. He's taught so many people, and people just don't realize the impact he's had on the industry in this way."

Rash said he's never had any conflict with father or son.

"It's like a father who has the country's most successful law firm," Rash said. "His son works for him, but eventually breaks away and starts his own firm. He builds his own group of clients. There might be some interaction, but basically they are separate entities."

For this new generation of Whittingham proteges, it's time to assert themselves, even if the old boss is home running in the Will Rogers Handicap instead of the Preakness. That doesn't mean next year at age 79 Charlie Whittingham is not going to be back in Baltimore with a Preakness contender.

This year one of his colts, Excavate, had minor soundness problems with his knees and could not be pushed. Compelling Sound needs more time to develop.

But it hasn't kept Whittingham from keeping a pulse on the progress of his training school graduates.

He called Rash after Honor Grades came from far back to get second in the Derby Trial.

"He phoned," Rash recalled, "and said, 'Well, I see you trained all the speed out of him.' "

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