It was everything a horse race should be and too few are: a pounding, gritty homestretch fight, a victory by inches, and then a lingering stewards' inquiry before 60,000 anxious fans knew who had won and who had lost. It was also a dramatic illustration of the training skills of one man: Charlie Whittingham. The race was last Saturday's Santa Anita Handicap won by the Whittingham-trained Cougar II over the Whittingham-trained Kennedy Road.
The marvel was not just that the Californian had sent out horses to finish 1, 2 in the $170,000 stakes (his third entry in the race ended up last), but that he had been able to prod and bully Cougar, a horse who had trained lackadaisically in recent weeks, into prime condition without a single prep race. The 7-year-old stallion had not competed in more than four months.
Many people questioned Whittingham's approach. After all, Cougar had been beaten for one reason or another in both the 1971 and 1972 Santa Anita Handicaps. He was second to Ack Ack the first year and to Triple Bend the next. The big race is held over a mile and a quarter, the most testing distance there is for American handicappers, and every previous winner had had at least one prep, and most of them had started from three to five times at local meetings before the Handicap.
Whittingham certainly knew the risk involved. Not long ago his mentor, Horatio Luro, had expressed concern about Charlie's program. "Those kinds of tactics require perfect timing on the part of the trainer and also a very good horse," Luro said. He himself once tried to win a major race the same way, but his horse, Rico Monte, was narrowly defeated by Triple Crown winner Assault. One has to look far back in the record book to see a horse who performed successfully under such conditions. Seventeen years ago the late Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons trained Nashua to win the Widener Handicap in his first start of the season, and racing people were properly impressed.
Whittingham was not in the least bothered by all the talk his training methods were provoking. "Cougar has come back after layoffs before," he declared, "and there is no reason he can't do it again. Last year he was away from the races from June 24 until Oct. 14, and on that date he won a stakes. This time he's been away longer—his last start was on Nov. 1—but I believe he can do it or I wouldn't be trying this."
Whittingham had an excellent reason for not wanting to start his horse earlier. He had nominated Cougar for the San Antonio on Feb. 24, and the horse had drawn topweight of 130 pounds in that event. Whittingham realized if Cougar won that race with such a staggering load, he was just asking for more troubles—and weight—in the Handicap. It was a better bet to run the stallion fresh.
When the weights were posted for the Handicap, Cougar again topped the list, but this time with a reasonable 126. His closest rival, Bicker, was assigned 120 pounds. At 119 were Royal Owl, Kennedy Road and the dollar wonder horse Crusading (SI, March 5).
Whittingham's training schedule for Cougar called for 16 serious gallops before the Handicap, including four at one mile, two at a mile and an eighth and, finally, two at the full distance of a mile and a quarter. Those last two workouts turned out to be disappointing, as the horse made no effort to extend himself. On the Tuesday prior to the Handicap, Whittingham decided something had to be done—and fast. It was then he staged a personal race for Cougar, matching him over a mile with a well-regarded stablemate, Quack. The workout took place in the afternoon just before the first race, and the hope was that Cougar, seeing 18,303 people in the stands, might be convinced of the seriousness of the task at hand. The track was muddy, but the time was an excellent 1:37[2/5] Cougar lost the contest by a head.
Because of the threat of rain—and some skepticism that Cougar could really be ready for a top effort—the Handicap drew a sizable field: 14 entries. Several trainers said the track condition would determine whether their horses actually started. Crusading and Bicker needed a fast surface; Crimson Clem and Curious Course would run only in slop. As for Cougar, Whittingham said, "He can perform all right on an off-track, provided it is not overly deep. Some trainers feel the deciding factor in whether a horse can or cannot handle a muddy track is the shape of his foot. I don't agree. I think the key is an animal's action and his breeding. A runner who stretches out low to the ground usually cannot handle mud. A high-action horse can. It may be a matter of heredity, too. For example, all the Reigh Counts and Count Fleets loved the mud. On the other hand, Round Table disliked it, and so do most of his offspring." Bicker and Crusading are sons of Round Table.
Though rain threatened, it did not fall on race day, and the enormous crowd, the largest since Johnny Longden's famous last ride in 1966, sent Cougar oft at 3 to 2. Californians have dubbed the stallion "Big Cat," and he has become a tremendous local favorite. He is loudly cheered from paddock to post.