Trainer's training a family matter

JOHN EISENBERG

May 13, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

The old man will not make it to the Preakness. He is 76 now and does not travel well, not after all those years on the road.

"That week at the Derby just about killed me," Lyle Whiting said yesterday from Hot Springs, Ark., where he finally retired three years ago. "I got tired, emotionally drained. I forgot to take my blood pressure pills. I came home in bad shape."

He is the father of the trainer of the Kentucky Derby winner, a remarkable circumstance if you go all the way back to the beginning, to those county fairs in the windy, sparse Nebraska of the Depression. Back to the beginning of this blood story.

When people talk about bloodlines at the racetrack, they usually talk about horses' blood. But then there are the Whitings.

"I guess there was never a chance my boy would be anything other than what he is," said Lyle Whiting, whose 52-year-old son, Lynn, stood in the winner's circle with Lil E. Tee at Churchill Downs a fortnight ago.

No, there was never a chance Lynn would buy into the customary boyhood dream of becoming a fireman or major-leaguer. Not when his mother wheeled him to the races in a stroller on the ninth day of his life. Not when he was bathing horses at 6, standing on a box with the brush.

"My wife caught him in the stall when he was 2," Lyle said, "trying to put a muzzle on a horse."

Ah, bloodlines. The old man was hooked on the game before Franklin Roosevelt was elected president. He was a wiry farm kid riding cold-blooded mares in relay races at Nebraska county fairs, a different bush track every week.

"You saddled the horse yourself," he said, "and went to the barns at night to get your money. You didn't always get paid if the owner didn't like the way you rode."

He graduated to thoroughbreds in Omaha and made a name for himself, went home and persuaded his family to sell the farm and come with him. His father and uncle became trainers.

"We lived like Gypsies," he said. "It was me and my wife, my father and mother, and my uncle and aunt, all pulling trailers with one or two horses. We made the county fair circuit all over the Southwest, up in Montana. Albuquerque. Phoenix. All over California. One day, I rode five winners in Tijuana."

They spent nights at the stockyards along the railroad tracks, and then everyone got tired of the grind and the money got better and they went legit. Seattle. Cleveland. Detroit. New Orleans. New England.

Lyle rode hundreds of winners, but tiring of struggling to make weight -- "I was starving myself to death" -- he retired in 1943 and became a trainer.

He set up barns in New England and Arkansas, and he was good, a sharp-eyed, instinctive horseman who never gave away a race. He was an aesthete, wanting neither a big stable nor a headline, just the game. He won dozens of stakes, the Derby Trial twice, but never went to the Derby.

"I never wanted the Derby," he said. "It was too much hoopla, too much jazz. I wasn't that kind. I was a loner, shy, very particular. I would have gone crazy with them taking all those pictures of my horse every two minutes."

Then, along came Lynn, who grew up in the barns, getting his hands dirty on horses every day, listening, learning how to understand an animal. Lynn went to work for his father out of high school. Lyle kicked him out 10 years later, telling him it was time he went on his own.

Lynn wound up working some of the same circuits, and it was funny, they raced against each other. One day at Suffolk, the old man beat his son in a photo finish. Knowing Lynn had put a lot of money on his horse, Lyle went home and cried.

The old man finally retired at 73, by which time Lynn had become a startling re-creation in many ways, an understated, unassuming pro with a knack and an enviable reputation, if not a household name. Bloodlines.

"You can't put in words what a son learns from a father in such a situation," Lyle said. "If you stand in the paddock and listen every day, you learn a lot. But don't get me wrong. He passed me by long ago."

Lynn brought his father to Louisville for the Derby, and Lyle spent the week around the barn, telling his son to keep the colt away from those damn photographers.

Then Lil E. Tee was winning the race, and Lyle Whiting was putting his hand to his forehead in disbelief. The same hand that rubbed cold-blooded mares in Nebraska before there was television.

"It's like Lynnie won for both of us," Lyle said. "The greatest feeling there ever was."

If you think the boy didn't bring his father into the winner's circle, you're crazy.

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