Lamoreaux: Old Trainers Never Die – They Just Win The Derby

It was early morning in southern California where “the surf meets the turf” and trainer Charlie Whittingham was holding court on the backside of Del Mar Race Track.  As the sun began to break through the mist, the energetic two-time Kentucky Derby winner, an early riser who was always first to arrive at his barn, was talking about his stable’s success at the meet.  “We’ve had a good summer,” he told me, ‘it’s good horse weather.  But you mess up, you just go ride out the back gate.”

Charlie was quirky.  In an instant he might decide to jump into his bathing suit. get astride one of his charges and ride down to the beach for a splash in the surf.  Never once did he ever “ride out the back gate.”  That persistence during a lifetime in the game finally reached its pinnacle when the self-described “Bald Eagle of Sierra Madre” pulled off a rare double for “super” senior trainers, winning his second Derby with Sunday Silence at age 76.  When he won the race three years earlier with Ferdinand he was the oldest trainer in history to do so then, too. Charlie died some 20 years ago, but at Del Mar, his spirit is still very much alive.

Where else on the American sporting landscape can a 70- or now even 80-year-old have the  audacity to challenge for the biggest prize in his profession.  That’s what Barclay Tagg will be doing this Labor Day weekend at the age of 83 with the favored New York-bred Tiz The Law. The same Sackatoga Stable syndicate and trainer that got lucky with their 13-1 longshot, New York-bred Funny Cide, shouldn’t need a four-leaf clover this time.

This has long been a business that has the promise of rich rewards for those who dedicate their lives to it.  Mac Miller had spent most of a lifetime with the classic home-bred Thoroughbreds of philanthropist Paul Mellon, but he was 71 before he finally won his Derby with another 13-1 longshot Sea Hero. “It’s the epitome,” was his immediate reaction. “It makes you want to cry a bit.”  Mac, a World War II Army Air Corps veteran, was known for his calm demeanor.  The “courtly Kentuckian” is a moniker that might fit him best.

And let us not forget Art Sherman.  He became the oldest trainer to win the race, when at the age of 77 his highly-regarded California Chrome got under the Derby wire first in 2014. Sherman spent his whole life on the California circuit.  He went from stablehand, to exercise rider, to race rider before finally getting his own string of Thoroughbreds to train — then waited ages to hit the jackpot.

All of these men came from the old stock of America.  Whittingham was a U.S. Marine with the Second Division at Guadalcanal during World War II.  He always revelled in keeping himself ‘fit as a fiddle,”as he might have put it. He also spent a lifetime entertaining the backside community, the press and the Hollywood stars like Rita Hayworth, Jimmy Durante and Bing Crosby.  Charlie loved to reminisce about those days, “Any time I got a little short, I could go to Bing.  You get playing the horses, you get short quite often.  I learned a long time ago, better eat before you bet.” So what worries you, Charlie?  “I only feel pressure when I have a lot of bums that can’t win.  Then you have pressure.”  And?  “You learn when you get a little older, when you lose your head your butt goes with it.”

Whittingham and Miller are in the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame, with a collective boatload of Eclipse Awards.  Barclay Tagg, not known as a man of many words, saw his longshot Funny Cide run off with the roses in 2003 and nobody has run a faster Derby since.  He was a mere lad of 66 then. Not bad for a former steeplechase jockey whose whole career has been slow and steady with mostly New York-breds. If he wins the Derby he will undoubtedly pad his Hall of Fame credentials.   And you can take it to the bank that he will let Tiz the Law do the talking in Louisville.

As for our story-telling, we’ll leave the last tale to ole Charlie Whittingham.  It seems he had a certain conversation with Joe Hernandez, the track announcer at Santa Anita, one day.  “Joe loved to bet on the horses.  So, I said to Joe.  This horse (Whittingham) will win today, bet yourself a few bucks on it.”  Well, apparently Joe decided this was the opportunity of a lifetime. “Then he’s calling the race, “and Whittingham,” and then “so-and-so is leading…and Whittingham.” And then pretty soon the horse begins running by the field and Joe begins to shout, “here comes Charlie…here comes Charlie.”  (laughter)

Here comes Charlie indeed — and Mac Miller and Art Sherman and maybe now Barclay Tagg.   As my old pal Woodie Broun once famously said, “sport doesn’t build character, it reveals it.” And, I might add, in the racing community, throw in some dogged grit and you get a lot of old trainers with big dreams.

E.S “Bud” Lamoreaux III is a creator and former executive producer of CBS News Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt.  He won four Eclipse Awards for national television excellence.

The post Lamoreaux: Old Trainers Never Die – They Just Win The Derby appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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