Where do you find sprinters nowadays that can show the versatility and lasting stamina to go to the front and still have enough in reserve to win at one mile and a quarter?
And how many countries, continents, and race tracks do you have to search to find a thoroughbred that can win on firm turf courses, fast dirt tracks, yielding turf stretches, and mud three inches deep, and at distances from 5 1/2-furlongs to 10-furlongs ?
Such an animal may not exist today.
There was one back about four decades ago. And he had the good fortune at ages four and five to be trained by the “Bald Eagle”, Charlie Whittingham.
His name was Ack Ack. He was a broadbeamed dark brown colt who was so fined-tuned at one point in his on-track career that he won seven straight graded stakes races . . . races contested at various distances and over various surfaces.
Seven straight graded stakes victories? That’s the stuff that makes for a U. S. Racing Hall of Fame ending for a thoroughbred.
And that is where Ack Ack is today, inducted in 1986.
Born in 1966. Raced from 1968 through 1971. Winner 19 times in his 27 races.
Nearly as important, he was as gentlemanly as he was competitive.
Going through the trove of facts concerning Ack Ack’s first two years at racing rivals into the ground, the facts show him moving forward in the silks of the Cain Hoy Stable and its owner, the ultra conservative Harry F. Guggenheim.
Following Guggenheim’s instructions, he was raced only three times at age two. He was never worse than second. When Frank Bonsal took over his training the next year, Ack Ack had 11 races. There were seven wins and three seconds, but the most interesting morsel left after sifting through his 1969 record was that owner Guggenheim kept him out of the Kentucky Derby.
Just before The Derby, Ack Ack had overpowered a field of what were thought to be his equals in The Derby Trial at Churchill Downs. He set a track record for the one mile distance. But Guggenheim still had reservations, telling the incredulous media his horse was still not ready for such an undertaking as The Derby.
Guggenheim would become ill. He made racing decisions based on the prognosis he was given by his doctors. He decided to send Ack Ack to trainer Charlie Whittingham in California.
Whittingham was a genius at sleuthing out what could make a thoroughbred give his best efforts. When he saw Ack Ack for the first time, Whittingham decided to pin-fire the horse’s balky knees. Pin-firing was done to promote healing.
At age four in 1970, Ack Ack raced five times and was able to win four of those efforts. All those races in California were sprints. He set the Del Mar track record in a 5 1/2-furlong sprint victory.
Guggenheim would die in January of 1971 and the executors of his estate would auction away his racing stock. Ack Ack would draw a bid of $500,000 from real estate entrepreneur, Buddy Fogelson, and his wife, actress Greer Garson.
The new owners retained the services of Whittingham, widely known as the Bald Eagle for his bald pate.
Whittingham took a different path when given a looser rein by the Fogelson’s. His knowledge of the now five-year-old was such that he believed Ack Ack could do well at distances other so-called sprinters would not even attempt.
Whittingham had him try nine and even 10 furlongs.
The in-race strategy was the same. But few thoroughbreds had led from beginning to end in one mile-and-a-quarter trials.
Ack Ack did it. And he did carrying 130 pounds home in the Hollywood Express, another 130 pounds in the American Handicap, and then closing out his brilliant career toting 134 pounds to the winner’s circle in the Hollywood Gold Cup.
Whittingham, then 58, told the press: “I really couldn’t do much about the weight they gave him. They were putting a lot of weight on all the good horses back then. It wouldn’t have been any less if we’d taken him to New York.”
Whittingham saw no danger or real problem with the heavy burdens being assigned. He said, “He could handle it. He was built real wide across the rear. A lot of thick muscle. And he got that weight moving right from the start, which made it easier on him than if he was a come-from-behind type of horse, starting and stopping all the time.”
Ack Ack’s dark brown color was mixed with lighter shades of brown and his taut muscles made him a natural favorite for those fans favoring the more photogenic thoroughbreds. Some described him as “entertaining as a singer or actor. He had verve and was very dashing.”
Whittingham could only chuckle in his aw-shucks manner when he listened to others say, “Winning at every pole is winning the hard way. It is estimated a horse must be five pounds the best to achieve that.”
With his record seven straight graded stakes win (and one second) in his eight 1971 races, Ack Ack was a leading candidate for Horse of the Year.
When he developed colic and was nearly lost, Whittingham discarded the plan he had to go to New York for the Woodward Stakes. He dispatched a stablemate of Ack Ack’s named Cougar to go in the Woodward.
Cougar had recently lost by seven lengths to Ack Ack so the writers in New York were aware of his second-fiddle standing next to his stablemate.
Cougar breezed past the finish ahead by five lengths in the Woodward. Despite the fact that he was disqualified in a controversy, his performance only enhanced the chances Ack Ack had of being named U. S. Horse of the Year for 1971.
The Fogelson’s retired Ack Ack after the near-fatal bout with colic.
He had proven himself much more than a one-surface sprinter. Winning in the slop at a distance of 10 furlongs takes stamina and it takes versatility.
Ack Ack had $636,641 in earnings and had a very high winning percentage (19 out of 27).
As a sire, he had 54 stakes winners, the more famous Broad Brush, Youth (1976 American Turf Horse of the Year), and Include.
Trainer Whittingham had Ferdinand, the 1986 Kentucky Derby champion. When the striking chestnut conquered the field that year, Whittingham became the oldest trainer (at age 73) to ever win that coveted race . . . and Ferdinand’s jockey, Bill Shoemaker, became at age 54 the oldest rider to win the Kentucky Derby.
Whittingham also trained Sunday Silence, another Kentucky Derby champion. In all, the Bald Eagle trained 252 stakes winners. His thoroughbreds had over $109 million in winnings.
Even after over 60 years of training thoroughbreds, if you caught Whittingham on a morning when it was raining and he was softly moving under a roof in one of his stables, he would look outside at the puddles and say, “It’s Ack Ack weather. He could win one today in this.”