Wednesday, May 07, 2008
Remembering Hall of Famer Frank Whiteley and the Legendary Ruffian
If asked, any turf writer will tell you that one of the best parts of his job--cashing a bet and eating lunch notwithstanding--is time spent in the mornings, before the afternoon’s parimutuel blood-letting.
On those occasions, you try to show up at the barn about 10 a.m., after training hours and before the barn phone starts ringing off the hook--the worst part of a trainer‘s job. By comparison, training horses is a lot easier than cooling out owners.
And so you’d greet your subject: “how are you, Bill,” “hey Nick,” “good morning, Shug.” Dealing with the media is all a big part of it now. Some successful of trainers even have their own publicists. A good idea for some things, but you can‘t look a press release in the eye.
Back in the day you were a little more formal, something like, “good morning, Mr. Whittingham,” “Could I have five minutes Mr. Gaver?” Anything less and you ran the risk of being chased out of the shed with a pitchfork-bearing horseman in close pursuit.
Last week, in the run-up to Kentucky Derby, the sport lost a great horseman. Frank Whiteley Jr. was gone, succumbed at his home in Camden, South Carolina, where he wintered every year getting the babies and the lay-ups ready. He rarely arrived in New York prior to the Belmont Park spring/summer meet.
To me, he was always Mr. Whiteley. I never could run very fast.
You never went to the Whiteley barn to pass the time of day, not like talking KU hoops with Shug, or the other Wildcats with Todd, or the Yankees with Nick. Whiteley just didn’t have, or want to make, the time.
Frank Whiteley was all business all the time. He could spin a yarn if he were in the mood, which was seldom. His stories usually went better over a cocktails but he didn‘t socialize much, especially with writers. I think his son David, a talented horse trainer himself, inherited some of that, sans charm.
Whiteley was a great horseman and has Hall of Fame credentials to prove it. Besides, no one goes around calling someone the “Fox of Laurel,” or anywhere else, for that matter, unless you were crazy like one, and took the time to cover all the angles.
I remember making the walk-over from the Whiteley barn to Belmont Park’s paddock for the Coaching Club American Oaks with Ruffian. No one knew then it would be her last race. At the time, her ill-fated match with Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure was not even on the drawing board.
Her main rival was a real comer, a late developing King Ranch filly called Equal Change. If Ruffian was big black and beautiful, Equal Change was a scopey, powerful and chestnut, I recall.
From the once powerful string of Robert Kleberg, whose family owned a significant piece of Texas, Equal Change was fresh with a pedigree suited to the mile and a half. This would be no automatic coronation of a New York filly triple crown winner.
An announcement came over the speaker system on the Belmont backstretch, like it did for every race: “Bring your horses over for the eighth race.” No one at the Whiteley barn was in any particular hurry. I asked Frank Tours, press liaison between the racing office and the horseman, what gives?
“Frank wants to get to the paddock last.”
“The filly’s high strung and you don’t want them in front of a big crowd too long. It’s an advantage to spend as little time around all those people as possible. Besides, she’s the star, and Frank knows it.”
With entourage in tow, Ruffian walked through the tunnel and up a slight incline toward the paddock. Having reached that point, Whiteley waited a minute before crossing over into the approach to the walking ring, the area adjacent to the present racing secretary’s office.
Ruffian’s handlers stopped right there so that the filly could survey the landscape, her ears signaling, before finally entering the ring. Whiteley, who once bragged he never read Preston Burch’s primer on training, covered all the bases.
Equal Change made a strong late run from the middle of Belmont’s sweeping far turn, loomed a possible upsetter approaching midstretch, but Ruffian held her safe. No filly ever finished in front of her.
Whiteley kept her in a jam-packed winners’ circle only long enough to take a picture before having her whisked back to the barn, making only the mandatory stop at the spit barn for post-race tests.
I never spent too much time around Whiteley, not that he’d allow, and neither did any of my contemporaries, for that matter. I can say only that actor Sam Shepard, a horseman himself, gave a good portrayal of Whiteley’s no-nonsense attitude in last year’s made-for-TV movie on Ruffian.
Acknowledging that he had much to work with, Whiteley took over the training of the six-year-old Forego and earned a third consecutive Horse of the Year title for Mrs. Gerry’s gelding. Forego won another championship at 7, but Horse of the Year went to then undefeated Triple Crown champion, Seattle Slew.
Whiteley won about every storied event worth winning: the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Travers, Wood, Woodward, an unforgettable Brooklyn with Damascus, Carter, Marlboro Cup, Metropolitan Mile, a Preakness with Tom Rolfe, and the Belmont Stakes.
A handful of self taught horsemen are born with the ability to be recognized among the sport’s best of all time. But there’s only one Frank Whiteley.