November 19, 2010

Remembering ... Whirlaway

The name Whirlaway holds a special place in the racing world, and for good reason. He was a great American character, who came along when the nation needed one. Consistent, but eccentric, talented, but hard to teach, Whirlaway was not your average superstar. He did not win his first five starts by open lengths. He could not run a straight path down the stretch of many a race. He was a hero nonetheless. Whirlaway embodied what Americans love. He tried every time, and was able to get up, dust himself off, and win the big one. Or make that, the big one times three. Win or lose, he stuck around and gave us more than any other triple crown winner had, or has since. He even raised needed money for our critical role in World War II. In a time when thoroughbred horse racing was a national pastime, Whirlaway was a special horse who was able to become a piece of Americana.

Mr. Long Tail, as his fans would affectionately call him, was the son of English Derby winner Blenheim II. As a juvenile, Whirlaway showed flashes of his great talent, but it was a season that hardly made you believe that he was on his way to greatness. Owned and bred at Calumet Farm, the chestnut colt managed seven wins, four of them coming in stakes races, but he also went down in defeat nine times in 1940. He also began to show signs of very erratic behavior for his legendary trainer, Ben Jones. Many occasions he would take his jockey close to the outside rail before returning to his powerful closing kick. Despite the many losses, his juvenile record was actually superior to the four horses that won the triple crown before him, Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, and War Admiral. Whirlaway did finish his two-year-old season on a high note, romping home in the Walden Stakes at Pimlico by four lengths. The win would not be enough for a championship though, as the honor went to the lightly raced Our Boots.

Whirlaway's three-year-old season picked up where his juvenile campaign left off, with inconsistency. He lost four of seven starts leading up to the Kentucky Derby, and one of those losses came in the Blue Grass where he was thrashed by Our Boots. In the Blue Grass, Whirlaway had no designs of running a straight path down the Keeneland stretch. It was time for Ben Jones to take action. He fashioned a one-eyed blinker for Mr. Long Tail to help his rider prevent him from severely bearing out. To test it, Jones sat upon a pony 10 feet off the rail as new rider Eddie Arcaro worked the colt. Thankfully it worked. Whirlaway was made a slight favorite over Our Boots in the Kentucky Derby, and in a two-minute blur, a star was born.

The scintillating rally by the Calumet homebred carried him to an eight length runaway. In the process, Whirlaway broke the Kentucky Derby record by two fifths of a second, finishing in 2:01 and 2/5. It was a record that would stand for 21 years. This magnificent win in the Run for the Roses, would not serve as a one-hit wonder for Mr. Long Tail. In the Preakness he once again dropped way back before uncorking an explosive rally that carried him from last to first by the time the horses hit the Pimlico stretch. Winning the Preakness by 5 1/2 lengths, would make Whirlaway a prohibitive favorite to become racing’s fifth winner of the triple crown. In between the Preakness and Belmont, he used an allowance race against older horses as a prep for the Test of Champions. That victory brought his winning streak to three, and on June 7 he would make it four in a row. In the Belmont Stakes, Whirlaway secured immortality by taking over the race early and opening up a big lead before coasting home for a 2 ½ length victory.

He notched a fifth consecutive victory in Aqueduct’s Dwyer Stakes marking his longest lifetime victory streak. Whirlaway was never as dominant again as that five-race stretch, but for the next season and a half, he proved to be durable, consistent, and the top horse in the nation. At Saratoga, he became the only triple crown winner ever to also win the Travers. Wins in the American Derby and Lawrence Realizational placed exclamation points on his marvelous season. Overall Mr. Long Tail won 13 races, and finished in the money in all 20 of his starts that year. Whirlaway, to no surprise, was named the Horse of the Year for 1941.

He already had 36 races under his belt, but as an older horse, Whirlaway raced even more regularly. When it was all said and done, he would finish with 60 lifetime starts. This number is far and away the most of any triple crown champion. Adding to his popularity, in his four-year-old season, he competed to help the American war effort. Raising money for war bonds, he raced 22 times and raised a reported $5 million for the cause. At four, Whirlaway was saddled with heavy weights as he was entered in all of the important handicap races east of the Mississippi. He didn’t win them all, but he was remarkably consistent winning twelve times and finishing second eight times. Once again he finished in the money in every start, and in the races that he did not win, he was closing fast. One of those narrow losses would come in a match race at Narragansett Park, where he gave the top sophomore in the nation, Alsab, seven pounds.

Even in defeat, Whirlaway did himself proud. He wasted no time avenging the nose loss, as he took on Alsab two weeks later in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. This time Mr. Long Tail got by his stubborn, younger rival, scoring a popular victory by three quarters of a length, while again giving away seven pounds. It was the race that likely clinched his second consecutive Horse of the Year honor. He finished 1943 with a walkover win in the Pimlico Special and a victory in Fair Ground’s Louisiana Handicap, helping him become racing’s all-time richest earner, and the first horse ever with more than a half million dollars earned. Unfortunately, it was in the Louisiana Handicap where Whirlaway bowed a tendon, and although he was brought back as a five-year-old, his two starts in 1943 proved unsuccessful.

Mr. Long Tail was retired with a record of 32 wins, 15 seconds and 9 thirds from his 60 starts and a bankroll of $561,161. He stood several years in Kentucky before the famous French breeder Marcel Boussac convinced Warren Wright of Calumet to let him lease Whirlaway to stand stud at his Haras Fresvay-le Bufford farm in France. Boussac later worked out arrangements to buy the great horse outright. On April 6, 1953, at the age of 15, Whirlaway died of a rupture in his nerve tissue, and was buried at Boussac's farm in France. His body was later returned to Kentucky, and he is now buried at Calumet. Whirlaway was elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1959. Whether or not you believe Whirlaway is one of the greatest American horses in history, his name will go down in racing lore. He had a flare that endeared him to millions. One thing for sure, Mr. Long Tail was one of a kind. I remember you Whirlaway.


darlene said...

thank you for a great piece on a great horse And never mind the 60 starts which we'll never see again What really is the kicker to me is using an allowance race between the Preakness and the Belmont as a prep Crazy! Awesome! but not unheard of then. How I long for the soundness and longevity of those olden days runners

Brian Zipse said...

Thank you Darlene! I agree, and in fact, a race between the Preakness and Belmont was the norm for many, many years.

Megan said...

To me, he was easily the most captivating of the Triple Crown winners. Maybe not the best, but arguably the one with the most personality and the stoutness, and a finishing kick that would leave most horses reeling.