A TALE OF A HOF HORSE, HIS HOF TRAINER, AND A MARIJUANA-SELLING GROOM

Horse racing has a long history, with enduring traditions and customs and interesting anecdotes about the often-eccentric characters who have been part of the sport. This week’s Horse Racing Business brings you one such anecdote about Hall of Fame Trainer Charlie Whittingham, Hall of Fame horse Ack Ack, and the horse’s groom Jim (not his actual name).

The narrative comes from Bill Hirsch, a former trainer and the son and grandson of Hall of Fame trainers, William “Buddy” Hirsch and Max Hirsch.  The Hirsch and Whittingham families were close friends.

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“I want to tell you a true story about the great Ack Ack in 1971.  When Churchill Downs ran the Ack Ack Stakes [on September 26, 2020], it made me think of this story.  

Charlie Whittingham had Ack Ack and was getting him ready to run in the Santa Anita Handicap.  He was the odds-on favorite with Bill Shoemaker riding.  His groom was a likable fellow named Jim.   He was Charlie’s best groom and rubbed his best horses.  Jim lived in a tack room at the end of Charlie’s barn about four stalls away from Ack Ack’s stall.  

Jim dealt in marijuana on the backstretch and kept his stash in his tack room.  Many people knew this and some would break into his room and steal.   

Ack Ack was a real mean horse and very powerful.  Whittingham’s crew had to put up a yoke screen in front of his stall because he would try to savage people as they walked by or came to visit him. They also couldn’t hang a hay rack in the front of his stall because of this danger to people. So they put his hay in a chain hay rack in one of the back corners of his stall.  Jim thought to hide his pot stash in the very back of the chain hay rack wrapped in plastic and paper bags.  No one would dare get into Ack Ack’s stall even if they knew the pot stash was there.  

On the night before The Big Cap something stirred up Ack Ack and he was on a rampage in his stall.  Jim could hear the goings on and went out to try and calm him down and was somewhat successful.  The next morning Jim got up and went to work and first checked on Ack Ack.  After all, it was Big Cap day and Ack Ack was the heavy favorite. Jim immediately noticed that during Ack Ack’s rampage the night before he had ripped the chain rack out from the wall and had gotten into the pot stash and tore into it and ate a lot of the pot.

Surely, Charlie would have scratched Ack Ack if he had known what transpired, thinking Ack Ack would test positive for the pot and get disqualified and get Charlie fined or ruled off or both. After fretting about his decision all morning, Jim decided not to tell Charlie. Then, later that afternoon, Ack Ack went out and won The Big Cap, setting a track record for the 1 ¼ mile distance. 

I was at the barn that morning walking hots for my father and other trainers trying to earn some money to bet with on that Saturday.  I walked up to Charlie’s barn that morning to wish the crew and specifically Jim good luck.  Then Jim told me what had happened.  He didn’t know what to do.  He wondered, ‘Should I tell Charlie that Ack Ack ate some pot or not?’

After the race, Jim was a nervous wreck as he walked Ack Ack to the test barn.  The rest is history as Ack Ack did not test positive for any prohibited substances.  

About 30 years later during a night drinking with Charlie in New York, I told him what had happened.  He shrugged his shoulders and exclaimed, ‘He would have won and set the track record without that shit!’

Until now, not many people knew this story. 

In 1971, Ack Ack was named champion sprinter and Horse of the Year.  In 1975, he was enshrined into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame.”

Horse Racing Business 2020

Comments

  1. Charlie would have been livid if the horse tested positive and he found out the truth. The pot would likely have made Ack Ack laid back rather than on edge. This is an incredible piece of history come to light almost 50 years after the fact that I enjoyed reading and found amusing.

  2. william hirsch says

    Furlong,
    I agree with what you say but who knows how much pot Ack Ack ate and what kind of reaction race horses have to pot? I was there in front of his stall and saw it all.

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