The spring, summer and fall of 1941 were a time of restiveness and uncertainty for the American people, many of whom assumed, correctly, that the U.S. would soon be drawn into World War II. Even so, the sports beat went on. As we could not escape being reminded during this past summer's many 50th-anniversary observances, '41 was the year Ted Williams hit .406 and Joe DiMaggio put together his 56-game hitting streak. But it was also the year the public fell in love with a sensational chestnut thoroughbred colt with a long tail. His name was Whirlaway.
Whirlaway was swift but temperamental. He could throw in a devastating three-eighths-of-a-mile kick, but he also could throw in the towel. He could not have won the 1941 Triple Crown without the training savvy of Calumet Farm's Ben Jones and the riding skills of Eddie Arcaro, but win it he did, and he was voted Horse of the Year for '41; he would be so honored again in '42.
Whirlaway was foaled on April 2, 1938, in the first American-sired crop of Blenheim II, the Aga Khan's 1930 Epsom Derby winner, whose offspring were noted for their soundness of body, but not necessarily of mind. That is, they were gifted but difficult to control. Calumet owner Warren Wright Sr. had purchased a quarter interest in Blenheim II when he was syndicated and brought to the U.S. in 1936.
Whirlaway demonstrated his speed—and his idiosyncrasies—in the very first start of his career, a five-furlong race at Lincoln Fields, near Chicago, in 1940. Even though he bore out badly coming into the homestretch and ran down the lane on the far outside, he won by a nose.
November 4, 1991
He was also a problem horse in the paddock. It seemed that no one at Calumet could control the willful 2-year-old. The task of trying fell to Ben Jones, who took Whirlaway as his private pupil.
Jones's son, Jimmy, who succeeded Ben as the trainer for Calumet, remembers his father's work with Whirlaway. "He just took that horse and wore him down," says Jimmy, who is retired and lives on a farm in Parnell, Mo. "He'd be gone two or three hours. Whirlaway was a bastard in the paddock. So they just went to the paddock every day. He stood in there and stood in there until Whirlaway got so he was the best horse you ever saw in the paddock.
"That was one of the greatest jobs of training I ever saw, really. He was a peculiar horse in that he had a very stubborn disposition, but he learned. He would respond to habit-building, and that's really what made the horse go."
Whirlaway had busy juvenile and 3-year-old seasons leading up to the Kentucky Derby, winning 10 of 23 starts. Ben Jones had tried seven different jockeys in his effort to control him. The jockey who rode him the most during this game of musical saddles was Johnny Longden, a future Hall of Famer.
The special training seemed to be working. But then, in his two starts immediately before the 1941 Kentucky Derby, Whirlaway reverted to his old practice of running wide. In both races—the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs—he was the favorite, and in both he bore out on the stretch turn and finished second.
His jockey was a 17-year-old named Wendell Eads. Now retired and living in Oakland, Ill., Eads says he wasn't strong enough to keep Whirlaway under control. "I was so small that I couldn't hold him," Eads says. "He was just too much horse for me."
After those two disappointing races, Jones put in a call for Arcaro, who had won the 1938 Kentucky Derby for him aboard Lawrin. Arcaro wasn't particularly eager to ride the moody Whirlaway, and besides, he was under contract to Greentree Farm.
"I had seen too many good riders that couldn't handle him," Arcaro says. "I didn't know why they thought I could. They were having a lot of trouble with him. He would bolt."
Mrs. Joan Payson, the daughter of Greentree's owner, interceded and asked Arcaro to ride the Calumet horse.
"But I don't want to ride him," Arcaro answered.
"Well, you're doing me a favor," said Mrs. Payson. "And I owe Mrs. Wright a favor."
Reluctantly, Arcaro agreed.
Jones told the jockey: "I know you've heard so many stories about him, but you know I wouldn't send for you if I didn't think that I could correct it. This is the fastest horse in America, and with you riding him, we'll win the Derby."
Having Arcaro ride Whirlaway was only one of the changes Jones made. He also followed his son's suggestion to equip Whirlaway with a one-eyed blinker, which had a cup partly covering the right eye so as to make Whirlaway afraid to run to the outside. With Arcaro in the saddle, Whirlaway wore the one-eyed blinker in a workout on Derby eve as the fearless Jones positioned himself on a pony five or six feet out from the inner rail at the head of the Churchill Downs homestretch. The idea was for Whirlaway to hum around the corner and then hug the rail as he charged between the fence and the pony on which Jones was seated.
"I just said to myself, 'If the old man is game enough to stand right there, I guess I'm game enough to run him down,' " Arcaro recalls. "Ben Jones never moved a muscle, and Whirlaway slipped through the narrow opening as pretty as you please. I'll tell you, he was flying, too. If he had ever hit Ben Jones, neither one of us would have been around to talk about it."
With the lesson learned and Arcaro now sharing Jones's confidence, jockey and horse were ready. Whirlaway went off as the Derby's betting choice, albeit at a tepid 2.90-1. This time the bettors were not disappointed.
Arcaro took hold of Whirlaway early in the race and kept the colt moving along in a high gallop. Swinging into the clubhouse turn, he was eighth in the field of 11. When Arcaro called on him to run rounding the far turn, Whirlaway took off. Arcaro recalls, "A clocker told me, 'That horse did something I've never ever seen a horse do—or thought a horse could do. He ran an eighth of a mile in a little over 10 seconds.' "
Whirlaway, fourth after a mile, flew down the stretch, his long, thick tail streaming behind him. His final quarter time of 23[3/5] seconds was only [2/5] slower than Secretariat's remarkable Derby effort in 1973. After crossing the finish line, Arcaro looked back over his right shoulder. His nearest opponent, Staretor, was a full eight lengths back. Whirlaway's time of 2:01[2/5] for the mile and a quarter was a Derby record that stood until Decidedly's 2:00[2/5] in 1962.
"He was the runningest son of a bitch I ever sat on," Arcaro said in the jockeys' room afterward. "I wouldn't say the best, but the runningest."
On May 10, a week after the Derby, Arcaro guided Whirlaway to victory in the Preakness in similar come-from-behind fashion, charging from last in the field of eight to win by 5½ lengths.
By June 7, the Belmont field had dwindled to four horses. The only hope for the other three horses, it seemed, was a slow pace. "I knew they were in a plot against him—of course, you would know that," Arcaro says. "I told my wife going to the racetrack that day, 'If they don't run the first half mile better than 49 seconds, I'm gonna let him go to the front. I can't hold him slower than that.' "
Itabo led the field through the first half mile in 49[4/5] seconds, and Arcaro, turning to the other two riders in the race, said, "The hell with this, fellas, I'm leaving." He moved his horse to the lead, opening up at least seven lengths.
"But he was a drunk dude. I could have outrun him myself from about the eighth pole home," Arcaro says. "He was just a mixed-up kid, really." The wobbly Whirlaway won by 2½ lengths.
Despite Whirlaway's Triple Crown and successive Horse of the Year honors, Arcaro and Jimmy Jones refuse to put the stamp of greatness on him. "I don't think any horse is great that has the idiosyncrasies he had," Arcaro says.
Charles Hatton, the late Daily Racing Form columnist, once wrote: "Whirlaway never really cared to be a racehorse. We never thought he had too much heart, as he would try to run out into the parking lot if a horse hooked him."
"Whirlaway had several things lacking in him," says Jimmy Jones. "He was not dead game. If a horse would run with him a ways, he could kinda knock him out a little bit. He had a tendency to give up."
After his four-year racing career (32 wins in 60 races), Whirlaway went to stud at Calumet. In 1950, he was leased for three years to Marcel Boussac, a French textile magnate, who shipped him to Europe to stand at Haras Fresnay-le-Buffard, in Normandy. Boussac later negotiated an outright purchase of the stallion. On April 6, 1953, at the age of 15, Whirlaway died suddenly from a rupture of a nerve tissue moments after he had been bred to a mare. Altogether, he sired 18 stakes winners. Many of his offspring had his name incorporated in theirs, e.g., Whirl Some, Whirl Flower, Whirling Fox, Whirling Bat and Risk a Whirl.
Whirlaway's legacy, however, was not as a sire. Beloved by a legion of fans, he will always be remembered as a champion racehorse—"Mr. Longtail," Mr. Melodrama of the homestretch.
Jim Bolus, from Louisville, is the author and co-author of two books on the Kentucky Derby.