Frank Whiteley: Trainer of Champions

Legends
Frank Whiteley with Forego, jockey Heliodoro Gustines, and owner Martha Gerry. (Blood-Horse photo)

As difficult to comprehend as it might be for someone living at a time when statistics have become an obsession, there’s no way of telling exactly how many races trainer Frank Y. Whiteley Jr. won in his career.

Numbers, though, are probably the least effective way of measuring the quality of his work and the tremendous respect he gained during the 48 years he spent caring for the horses in his barn.

Whiteley was never one to crave a spotlight and he welcomed interviews with the media as freely as he would a migraine. He spent the bulk of his career based in regions like Maryland and South Carolina, yet his skills with a race horse were so special that fame still found its way to his doorstep.

In BloodHorse magazine’s poll of the greatest champions of the 20th Century, three of the top 35 were horses trained by Whiteley: Forego, Damascus and Ruffian.

That, more than the exact number of his wins, no doubt casts the best reflection on the 1978 Hall of Fame inductee who will always be remembered as “The Fox of Laurel.”

Frank Whiteley leads Chieftain on the track in 1965. (Blood-Horse photo)

“I worked for him and his son, David,” said Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey at the time of Whiteley’s death in 2008 at the age of 93. “Frank Whiteley was just a wonderful horseman, who did it the grass-roots way, and there just aren’t that many around anymore. When they got sick, he gave them aspirin. When they needed to be iced, he hosed them.

“He was a fun guy to work for, and he had great stories. He wasn’t easy, but the reason he wasn’t easy was because he was teaching you.” 

Frank Yewell Whiteley Jr. was born in Centreville, Maryland, on Jan. 31, 1915, and was the son of the county sheriff.

At the age of 15, he started working at racetracks as a groom and began his training career at Maryland’s Marlboro Racetrack in 1936 when he took out his license.

“I never worked under another trainer and I didn’t read Preston Burch’s book (“Training Thoroughbred Horses”), either,” Whiteley said in the 1980 New York Racing Association media guide.

Over the course of the next two decades Whiteley developed a reputation as one of the region’s best horsemen, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that he finally attracted attention on a national stage. 

In 1962-63 he turned Bronze Babu and Polarity into graded stakes-caliber turf runners and then he won the 1964 Governor’s Cup at Bowie and the 1965 Arlington Handicap with Chieftain.

As good as Chieftain was, his half-brother turned out to be an even better runner for owner Raymond Guest and accounted for the first of the nine championships won by Whiteley’s horses.

Tom Rolfe enjoyed a modest campaign at 2, winning just three of 10 starts, including the Cowdin Stakes at Aqueduct. Then at 3 the son of Ribot blossomed into a champion. He won the 1965 Preakness and finished third in the Kentucky Derby and second by a neck in the Belmont Stakes. Later in the year he wrapped up the 3-year-old title by heading to Arlington Park and sweeping the Citation, Chicagoan, Arlington Classic and American Derby.

A son of a two-time Arc winner, Tom Rolfe was then sent overseas by Guest to race in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, where he finished sixth to the famed Sea-Bird in a field of 20.

Tom Rolfe was followed in Whiteley’s barn by Edith Bancroft’s Damascus, who would win 21 of his 32 starts.

Damascus won the Wood Memorial by six lengths and was sent off as the 8-5 favorite in the 1967 Kentucky Derby, but hung in the stretch and finished third to Proud Clarion. The son of Sword Dancer rebounded by taking the Preakness and then two weeks later won the Belmont Stakes at Aqueduct.

In the summer, Damascus romped by an astonishing 22 lengths in the Travers and in late October breezed by 4 ½ lengths in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. In the Woodward, he won by 10 lengths over two of the decade’s best horses, Buckpasser and Dr. Fager.

He closed out what would be a Horse of the Year campaign by making his turf debut and tackling future Hall of Famer Fort Marcy in the Washington D.C. International at Laurel Park and lost by a nose.

The legendary Ruffian. (Bob Coglianese/BloodHorse Library)

In 1974, Whiteley’s barn became home to one of the sport’s greatest fillies of all time, Ruffian.

Whiteley did his best to keep quiet about Ruffian’s abilities before her career debut, and as a result she was sent off at odds of 4-1 on May 23, 1974 at Belmont Park in her first start. But the word about her spread like a wildfire after she posted an eye-opening 15-length win.

Wins in the Fashion, Astoria and Sorority followed before she won with consummate ease in the Spinaway at Saratoga, registering a 12 ¾-length rout in her season finale.

At 3 she remained unchallenged and swept  NYRA’s Triple Tiara of the Acorn, Mother Goose and mile-and-a-half Coaching Club American Oaks to push her record to a perfect 10-for-10.

With the undisputed champion of the 3-year-old filly division, Whiteley eyed bigger challenges for a horse that had led at every call in all 10 of races.

“I was going to beat Forego with her later in the year,” he told NYRA.

Before that, the nation’s craze over a battle of sexes led to a match race between Ruffian and Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure. Billed as “The Great Match,” the race was set at a mile and a quarter distance at Belmont Park on July 6, 1975.

Jockey Jacinto Vasquez, the regular rider for both horses, opted to ride the filly and Ruffian was sent off as a 2-5 favorite in the wagering.

With a turnout of more than 50,000 on hand and a television viewing audience that was estimated at 20 million, Ruffian held a half-length lead about three furlongs into the race when she tragically broke down. Though she fractured the sesamoid bones in her right front leg, she resisted Vasquez’s attempts to pull her up, doing even more damage to the leg. 

Despite herculean efforts to save her, Ruffian was humanely destroyed in the early hours of the following day.

“It was a great responsibility to train her, but she was a pleasure to be around,” Whiteley said about her years later in a television interview. “She was the greatest filly I ever trained, there’s no question about that.”

Later that year, another of the era’s greatest champions came into Whiteley’s barn.

After trainer Sherril Ward became sick, owner Martha F. Gerry turned Forego over to Whiteley. The grand gelding was soon to win a second straight Horse of the Year title and with Whiteley the champion remained as good as ever.

“Forego practically trained himself,” Whiteley told NYRA.

Forego was named Horse of the Year for a unprecedented and still unmatched third straight year in the Eclipse Awards era during a 1976 campaign that featured wins in the Metropolitan Handicap, Nassau County, Brooklyn, Woodward, and Marlboro Cup.

The Marlboro Cup was gem the of the bunch as Forego conceded 18 pounds to Honest Pleasure and closed furiously in the final furlong to beat him by a head in one of the sport’s greatest finishes.

Age - not to mention a ton of weight in handicap races - started to catch up with Forego at 7 but he still managed to win the Met Mile, Nassau County and Woodward, a trio of races in which he carried at least 133 pounds, and was named the year’s champion handicap horse.

Forego was retired after two races in 1978 and would be Whiteley’s final champion.

In 1984, Whiteley announced he was retiring as a trainer and moved to Camden, South Carolina, where he had wintered his horses for decades. It was his way of staying close to the animals he loved so deeply.

“I don’t even go to the races when I don’t have a horse running,” he told NYRA, adding that he had no hobbies, just a passion for horses. “When I’m not at the barn, I sleep. I love horses.”

And because of that special bond he had with his horses, when Whiteley passed away in 2008 he left behind a legacy as one of the greatest trainers of his era.

“He was one of the best horsemen I’ve ever been around,” Vasquez said. “I met him in 1963, and he was like a father to me.”

Fun facts about Frank Y. Whiteley Jr.

  • His son, David, was also a highly successful trainer. Among his best horses were Waya, the champion older female of 1979, Revidere, the champion 3-year-old filly of 1976, and 1979 Belmont Stakes winner Coastal.
  • In 1976, Frank and David became just the third father and son to a train a champion in the same year.
  • Among Frank Whiteley’s other well-known stakes winners were Honorable Miss and Cloudy Dawn.
  • His first stakes winner was Demobilize, who was owned by major league baseball executive Larry MacPhail.
  • In 1998, he was inducted into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame.
  • For his role in making South Carolina a popular choice for wintering horses, the city of Camden, South Carolina, honored him with “Frank Whiteley Jr. Day” in 2003 and presented him with the key to the city. Also in 2003, he received the Order of the Palmetto from the Governor of South Carolina, one of the state’s most prestigious honors.
  • Whiteley was portrayed by actor Sam Shepard in the 2007 ABC movie “Ruffian.”
  • Well known for his lack of patience with reporters, one of Whiteley’s best quips came at the 1967 Kentucky Derby when he was asked at a press conference how Damascus had been sleeping. He replied, “How the hell would I know. I don’t sleep with him.” He then walked away.

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