October 15, 2010

Remembering ... Ack Ack

In a career filled with the training of great horses, it may have been in the transforming of a former sprinter into a sensational Horse of the Year, which proved to be Charlie Whittingham’s greatest professional accomplishment. Ack Ack was a bay son of Battle Joined out of the Turn-To mare Fast Turn foaled in 1966, and he did not come to work with the Bald Eagle until he already had two seasons under his girth. In those first two seasons, Ack Ack displayed a penchant for winning, but also a preference for shorter distances. His racing career began the year before I was born in 1968. As a juvenile, Ack Ack managed only one win and two seconds in three starts. At the time he was trained by Frank Bonsal, for owner and breeder Harry F. Guggenheim.

His sophomore season began in South Florida and Ack Ack began to flash his talents. Three straight wins ensued, including Hialeah’s Bahamas Stakes, but he failed when trying a distance for the first time in the Everglades Stakes. Back at shorter distances, Ack Ack romped in an allowance race at Keeneland and then scored an impressive victory in the Derby Trial. In that race he broke the track record by running the mile in 1:34 2/5. The sharp time did not persuade his connections to go on the Triple Crown trail though as they knew their charge was best in one-turn races. While Majestic Prince and Arts and Letters were deservingly getting all the headlines with their series of battles in the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, Ack Ack stayed off the major stage. He was placed first in Belmont’s Withers Stakes and then finished second in two straight distance races at Garden State Park, before ending his season with a big win in the one-turn Arlington Classic. At year end, his sparkling three-year-old record showed seven wins and three seconds in eleven starts.

Offered as part of a full stable dispersal sale due to the owner’s failing health, Ack Ack, was not sold. It was no wonder as his reserve price was rumored to be one million dollars. A huge number as the 1960‘s came to a close. Still running for his ailing owner, Ack Ack was sent to California to work with his new conditioner, Charlie Whittingham.

Ack Ack began his career as an older horse, and for his new trainer, with a troubled trip when fourth in the Premeire Handicap. He would go on to win the Los Angeles Handicap at Hollywood and the Autumn Days Handicap on the Santa Anita turf course. He also set a track record of 1:02 1/5 for 5 ½ furlongs in an easy allowance score at Del Mar. At four, he may have only raced five times, winning four of them, but it was clear that Whittingham‘s new charge was one of the fastest horses in America. Although he specialized in sprint races, his trainer saw the potential for distance racing because of the bay colt’s breeding. Whittingham mapped out a plan to test him in the biggest races on the West Coast.

Ack Ack began his fourth season of racing the day after New Year’s by finishing second in the Palos Verdes Handicap and then quickly wheeled back to win the seven furlong San Carlos Handicap easily for Guggenheim. The sickly owner would not live to see the transformation from sprinter to superstar though, as he died in January of 1971. Whittingham was able to convince friends Buddy Fogelson and his wife, actress Greer Garson, to buy a majority interest in Ack Ack for a reported $500,000, while the wily trainer retained one-third interest. It was money well spent all around as Whittingham would be correct about the horse and Ack Ack would go on a major roll for his new owners.

In his first route try in nearly two years, Ack Ack won the San Pasqual at 1 1/16 miles. Next came a win in the nine furlong San Antonio Stakes. The historic Big Cap would be next, and the former sprint specialist was assigned 130 pounds in his first try at a classic distance. He opened up a large lead and was able to hit the wire 1 ½ lengths clear of the classy Cougar II. Proving his amazing versatility, Ack Ack returned to the races, after a brief rest, to score easily in the Hollywood Express at just 5 ½ furlongs. Next would come only his second ever try on the grass, and he once again dominated from the get go in the 1 1/8 mile American Handicap, setting a course record in the process. His next test would come in the Hollywood Gold Cup. On a six-race winning streak, Ack Ack was asked to carry 134 pounds. It marked the fifth straight race where he carried rider Willie Shoemaker and enough lead to hit at least 130 pounds. The heavy impost and the ten furlongs mattered little as Ack Ack rolled home much the best.

Unfortunately, Ack Ack would not be afforded the opportunity to build on his lengthy win streak. A life-threatening bout of colic saw to that, and the speedy son of Battle Joined was retired. Despite not racing after the Gold Cup on July 17, his superlative five-year-old season earned an embarrassment of riches at the Eclipse Awards. Ack Ack was named Horse of the Year, as well as both the Champion Older Horse and Champion Sprinter awards. Ack Ack retired as a champion with a career record that displayed his marvelous consistency, 19 victories and 6 second place finishes in only 27 starts and career earnings totaling $636,641.

With his racing career behind him, Whittingham’s star project went to stud at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky where he once again was a big success. Ack Ack sired a diverse group of 55 stakes winners. Among his notable offspring was the great turf talent Youth, who won the Canadian International at 1 5/8 miles and the prestigious D C International by ten lengths, as part of Ack Ack’s first crop. He also sired a favorite of mine in Broad Brush, who inherited his sire’s consistency and toughness, and became a champion sire as well. He lived at Claiborne until his death on December 28, 1990 at the age of 24. Ack Ack was buried at Claiborne Farm. Elected into Racing’s Hall of Fame in 1986, he was truly one of a kind. Sprinting, routing, grass, or dirt, Ack Ack, with the help of his legendary trainer, did it all. I remember you Ack Ack.


Anonymous said...

That's why I like reading your blog....learn something new each time I do! Thanks!

Marti said...

I have always thought AA's story was Charlie's story...there will just never be another trainer like him again. Nice write up, Brian.

bruce said...

Nice piece. Being from SoCal, I know him well. Ack Ack was pure freak!