Whitmore is the most admirable racehorse in America.
He’s not the richest, the fastest or the most accomplished. He’s not the most famous; he’s not the most handsome — except, perhaps, to some partial eyes. But he’s the most admirable. At age 8, he’s still performing successfully at the sport’s highest level, and here he is, in the midst of his seventh campaign, entered to make the 43rd start of his career on Aug. 28, in the Forego Stakes (G1) at Saratoga Race Course. Among his 15 victories are 11 stakes, seven of them graded.
“I love to see the old guy continue to do what he likes doing and is so good at,” said his trainer and co-owner, Ron Moquett. “He’s coming into this in good shape. … It’s going to be a great race. I’m excited.”
Whitmore scored the most significant victory of his career last November at Keeneland, where he rallied from tenth and won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) in his fourth attempt, making his case to become the season’s champion male sprinter. He had finished third in 2019 and second in 2018. And if all goes according to plan, he’ll travel west to Del Mar for this year’s renewal of the Sprint, where he would match the venerable Kona Gold with five appearances in the Breeders’ Cup. In other words, Whitmore is putting together the sort of resume that could someday put him in the sport’s Hall of Fame; with a second victory in the Forego — he won the race in 2018 —he’d be odds-on.
It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say Whitmore is a throwback or an anachronism, for, in truth, horses who defy attrition and time to succeed beyond age 7 at the sport’s highest levels of competition have always been extraordinary.
The great Exterminator won the Kentucky Derby as a long shot whose owner didn’t even want to enter him in the race, but it was the champion’s longevity that endeared him to the sport’s fans and to history: He raced 99 times (100 if you count an exhibition at Hawthorne) and won three races in 1924 before retiring at age 9. When Dave’s Friend became one of the sport’s first sprinting millionaires, his popularity rested on a snowbank of victories and game efforts; he won the Count Fleet Stakes at 9, an allowance race at 10 and retired in 1986 at 11 after winning 35 of his 76 starts. Cardmania won the 1993 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at 7, and the San Carlos (G2) the next year. But the incomparable John Henry set the standard, of course, for sustained excellence amid senescence by winning four Grade 1 stakes in 1984, at age 9.
“Familiarity,” Moquett said, has been the key to Whitmore’s consistency and success. He has his routine, he has his team, and little changes; so Whitmore is always comfortable, always in a familiar place, never stressed by the unexpected.
Since he was 3, only one person has galloped him, Laura Moquett, the trainer’s wife and assistant; only one has breezed him, Greta Kuntzweiler, a former jockey and Moquett’s other assistant; and only Carlos Monroy has been the champion’s groom. And Whitmore has had only one trainer, Moquett, a native of Oklahoma who began working at “bush” tracks as a youngster and supplemented his income with “toughman” fighting, which sounds like something out of a Clint Eastwood movie. Even when he began training horses and had his own stable, Moquett lived in a “tack” room at the barn. He was constantly with his horses; maybe that’s why he seems to have such a rapport, an unspoken communion, with them, especially with Whitmore, who, like his trainer, traveled a long and circuitous route to arrive at an Eclipse Award.
“He’s quirky,” Moquett said about Whitmore, explaining why the familiarity is so important. In 2018, all the headstrong gelding wanted to do in the way of training was jog. He won three stakes that year and finished second in three more. In the mornings, he can be stoic and calm. In the afternoons, if touched in the wrong place or at the wrong time, he can let loose a double-barreled kick that would take the cab off a Ford F-150.
“We’ve allowed him to maintain what makes him good,” Moquett said. “Some trainers talk about putting a horse in their program. Our program is doing whatever makes him happy.”
When he was a 3-year-old, Whitmore was aimed at the Triple Crown races. That just made sense for a son of Pleasantly Perfect who’s out of a Scat Daddy mare. He ran second in the Rebel (G2) at Oaklawn Park and then third in the Arkansas Derby (G1) to earn his way onto the sport’s biggest stage. But there he chipped a knee and finished 19th in a Kentucky Derby field of 20.
“Everything said he ought to go two turns,” Moquett said, “but he’s built like a bodybuilder. He looks like a tank.”
When he came back from knee surgery, Whitmore won his first five starts, all sprinting. This, he seemed to be saying, was what he wanted to do, and Moquett listens when his horses talk to him. Sprinting also seemed an especially attractive option and one that could prolong his career because, as Moquett explained, “When things set up right for him, he only has to run a quarter-mile.”
Every year since then, except this year, Whitmore has won at least one stakes race. He finished third in the recent Vanderbilt (G1), where he had to alter course, shifting to the outside when blocked. He also finished third in the Churchill Downs Stakes (G1), a head back, after rallying seven-wide. And he had a pair of runner-up finishes at Oaklawn, in the Count Fleet (G3) and the Hot Springs Stakes. So he hasn’t won in 2021, but he hasn’t given a poor performance either. He hasn’t slowed a step so much as he’s, well, “quirky.” Usually rallying from far back, he needs a lively pace in front of him and a clean trip around or through traffic. He also has his preferences; he slides on a sloppy track, and he doesn’t like to slide.
“He’s not perfect. He’s… well, he’s human, for lack of a better word,” Moquett said, probably without realizing how much he had just flattered humans.
Gary West is a nationally acclaimed turf columnist, racing analyst, author and handicapper who helped pioneer pace figures.