Whittingham likes his Belmont chances

June 08, 1994|By New York Times News Service

At 81 and counting, Charlie Whittingham is the dean of American horse trainers. He has won more than 2,400 races, 600 of them stakes, including the Kentucky Derby twice and the Preakness once. He has earned more than $104 million in purses. He has trained 10 national champions. He has won the Hollywood Gold Cup eight times, the Santa Anita Handicap nine times, the San Bernardino 11 times and the San Juan Capistrano 14 times.

But in 60 years of prizes, he somehow has missed one: the Belmont Stakes. He will try it for the third time on Saturday with Strodes Creek, who has raced only five times in his career, who did not win either the Santa Anita Derby or the Kentucky Derby and who did not even run in the Preakness.

But when they reach for the brass ring of New York racing, Whittingham and his star may well be favored to win the 126th Belmont Stakes and to keep racing beyond it toward the championships that will be decided in the second half of the year.

"I didn't go to the Kentucky Derby for 26 years," Whittingham said the other morning at Belmont Park, "because I didn't think I had a Derby horse. I would never go to the Derby if I didn't have a horse that could win. Or the Belmont. This year, I have one."

He has one, all right. Strodes Creek is a bay colt of heroic size and bearing, a son of Halo and a grandson of Hail to Reason. He is bred for distance and does his best running in the homestretch, usually with a closing rush that seems remarkably suited for the Belmont marathon of a mile and a half.

Strodes Creek is owned principally by Whittingham and Arthur Hancock, the master of Stone Farm in Kentucky, and they have been here before. In 1989, they arrived with the great Sunday Silence, who had won the Derby and the Preakness in stirring duels against Easy Goer. But on his home track, Easy Goer won some revenge in the Belmont, outrunning Sunday Silence by eight lengths.

Three years earlier, Whittingham also tried to win the Belmont with Ferdinand, another Derby winner. But Ferdinand ran second in the Preakness and third in the Belmont, and Whittingham went home to California without the elusive prize.

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