Hearing the crackle of a cellophane wrapper, Sunday Silence bounced to a stop in the middle of his shed, raised his head regally and twice stomped a forefoot, as if about to address his small audience at Belmont Park. Obviously speechless, however, he simply nickered as Charles Whittingham, his 76-year-old trainer, finished unwrapping the small disc of red-and-white candy and held it out in the palm of his hand. The colt swallowed it in a gulp.
"He's the peppermint kid," said Whittingham, the Bald Eagle of American racing.
"He's on the muscle today!" cried Pam Mabes, Sunday Silence's exercise rider, as the colt led her around the shed, stopping here, kicking his heels there, bowing his neck, playing and fussing on a day given over to walking and eating and resting.
"Can't stand a day off, can he?" said Whittingham. "Look at him! He hasn't missed an oat all spring, and he eats like he's going to the electric chair." The colt's brown coat, so dark it seems almost black, shone in the afternoon light with a luster of radiant health.
Sunday Silence did not look like a horse weathering so rigorous a campaign as the Triple Crown. On May 6 he won the 1¼-mile Kentucky Derby, beating his archrival, Easy Goer, by 2½ lengths. Two weeks later, at Pimlico, he lost momentum when he was pinched off around the far turn but then in a furious, whip-cracking battle through the stretch, fought back to win the 1 3/16-mile Preakness, beating Easy Goer by a nose. Now here he was, a week later, fit and ready to do battle once again with Easy Goer in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, the longest of the Triple Crown races, at 1½ miles. And ready, perhaps, to become the 12th horse to sweep the three races and the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
"I know how to get a horse to go a mile and a half," Whittingham says. "I've won the San Juan Capistrano [Handicap] 14 times, and that's a mile and three quarters. I've won a lot of distance races in my life. I've been galloping this horse long all spring. He could run from here to Baltimore today. I'll have him ready. He's the peppermint kid. I'm the mile-and-a-half man!"
Whittingham is the most accomplished trainer of racehorses in America, and the nature and volume of his records suggest that he may be the greatest trainer of the last half century. Only Woody Stephens, his 75-year-old contemporary and counterpart on the East Coast—the trainer of five straight Belmont winners and 10 Eclipse Award winners—has a comparable place in the sport's history. Through last week Whittingham had won 552 stakes races—a career record—since June 10, 1953, the day he saddled a horse named Porterhouse to win the $30,700 National Stallion Stakes at Belmont, his first stakes victory. Of those victories, 218 have been in races worth more than $100,000, another record.
For most of the last 33 years—since he and his wife, Peggy, moved permanently from Long Island to Sierra Madre, Calif., at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains near Santa Anita—Whittingham has been the dominant force in Southern California racing, especially in the major long-distance races for older horses. In addition to his San Juan Capistrano triumphs, he has won the 1¼-mile Santa Anita Handicap seven times and the 1¼-mile Hollywood Gold Cup eight times. He has won the rich Oak Tree Invitational, a 1½-mile romp on grass, on nine occasions. He avoids the big races for 2-year-olds because, he says, horses that age are too young and soft-boned to endure the stress of hard competition. And so his barn is usually filled with gifted older horses, many of them shipped to him by owners from Europe and Australia.
"The one thing about Charlie that strikes me is his patience with a horse," says John Russell, a California trainer. "He's not afraid to get a horse from a foreign land and give him a year to acclimate before he races him."
Patient as he is with his horses, Whittingham himself came to hand very early, as they say at the racetrack, growing up fast on a ranch in Otay, Calif., four miles north of the Mexican border. He never knew his father, who drowned when Charlie was nine months old. When he was six, his mother—remarried and burdened with more children and dawn-to-dusk work on the farm—gave Charlie to her late husband's sister to raise. He grew up on horseback and left school after the eighth grade. "That was far enough for me," he says.