Triple Crown winners are some of the more exulted horses in the thoroughbred world. Many are remembered for not only their talent and speed, but also for their determination and intelligence which made them so formidable. In the case of the fifth American Triple Crown winner Whirlaway, heart and smarts were not what he is fondly remembered for. He had exceptional talent and speed, and he raced more times than any other Triple Crown winner, but according to his trainer the legendary Ben Jones, “Whirlaway was a Knucklehead”.
Whirlaway was bred and raced by the historic Calumet Farms and became the first of eight Kentucky Derby winners and the first of two Triple Crown winners campaigned by Calumet. He was a chestnut son of English Derby winner Blenheim II out of Dustwhirl. Dustwhirl was an unraced daughter of champion racer and sire Sweep, who also had added the accreditation of being the dam sire of Triple Crown winner War Admiral to his accomplishments the year Whirlaway was conceived.
Blenheim II had already established himself as a superior stallion having sired the likes of English Derby winner Mahmoud, Mumtaz Begum (dam of Nasrullah), and Italian super horse Donatello before his relocation to Kentucky. Calumet was part of the syndicate that bought Blenheim II from the Aga Khan III and had great success with the stallion’s get which includes champion Mar-Kell and major stakes winner Nellie L, bred the following years after Whirlaway.
As mentioned, Hall of Fame trainer Ben Jones became the conditioner for Whirlaway since he was the private trainer for the powerhouse Calumet stable. Whirlaway showed speed early on but presented many challenges for Jones due to his quirky but stubborn personality. “He was a creature of habit” said Jones’ son Jimmy. “We had to create habits we wanted him to do”. Ben Jones would later say “You can teach him, but you can’t teach him much. He was the dumbest horse I ever trained”. Not exactly a flattering appraisal.
However, Whirlaway did possess a solid athletic body. Whirlaway stood 15.3 hands, was short coupled but very muscular. He also had a very smooth action when at speed but had a penchant to veer right down the home stretch when he was making his run. “He was a one run horse” said Jimmy Jones, meaning he needed a clear unimpeded run to make his winning bid successful. Compounding to the trainer’s frustrations, Whirlaway needed repeated lessons in order for him to get the hang of what Ben Jones was trying to teach him. This was all part of the high strung Whirlaway’s mental make-up and need to have consistent habits in his daily routine.
Another aspect to Whirlaway that challenged his support team was his penchant for throwing in the towel if engaged by other horses. “He had to have it all his own way” said Ben Jones. Whirlaway despised having another horse come up behind him, so Jones would keep the chestnut colt’s tail cut long to deter any horse from getting too close. The appearance of Whirlaway’s flowing appendage beyond his rump ushered his nickname to the racing public, Mr. Longtail. His stable name was Whirly.
Much of this would come to be known after Whirlaway made his first start in a race, a five furlong maiden special weight race on June 3, 1940 at Lincoln Fields. He broke well in third, shuffled back to fifth some six and a half lengths back until unleashing his good turn of foot in the home stretch to win by a nose. His next five races would come at Arlington Park where he recorded a win in an allowance race, to go along with a pair of third and fourth results respectively. None of the races were beyond six furlongs. Two of the races were stakes events.
A shift to Saratoga brought a second place finish by a neck in the U.S. Hotel Stakes and then his first stakes victory, coming in the Saratoga Special. Johnny Longden had become his regular rider by now. A second place to New World while carrying five more pounds than the winner, Whirlaway had previously beaten that one at equal weight, was followed with a win in the Hopeful Stakes over a muddy six and a half furlongs.
Moving to Belmont for a September 24 allowance race, Whirlaway swerved wildly off the home turn and finished a disappointing fifth. He did the same thing in the following Futurity Stakes in a third placed outing before winning twice in a row, after moving to Keeneland, in an allowance win and the Breeder’s Futurity. The final two races for Whirlaway came in the longer, nine and a half furlongs, Pimlico Futurity and the Walden Stakes over off tracks. A third and a win respectively were enough for Whirlaway to be named as the co-champion juvenile for 1940.
Whirlaway had shown his exceptional speed, but his erratic style had been his undoing in several of his losses. Ben Jones knew he had to devote more time with Whirlaway than he had ever done with any other horse he trained before. And, this horse would test the patience of the master trainer like no other before or after in his illustrious career.
Ben Jones gave Whirly a breather from racing, but continued to work with the horse to get him to stop going right down the stretch. Blinkers had become part of Whirlaway’s regular equipment. Jones brought his colt out for a February 8 three year old debut at Hialeah in an allowance race. Over a track listed as good, Whirlaway won by a head, but continued to bore out to the right. In the following race Whirlaway met heavy traffic and could only muster a third place finish. He failed to engage in his next race and hung in the stretch for another third placing three weeks later.
It was beginning to look as if Whirlaway could not overcome his tendencies. On March 28 the Jones trained Derby hopeful won a five and a half furlong allowance by a neck with a determined effort. Perhaps all was not lost on this talented but erratic colt after all. The new found optimism grew when Whirlaway won an overnight handicap at Keeneland two weeks later. Even though the margin of victory was only a neck, the chestnut son of Blenheim II was drawing away from his foes.
However this new found hope took another downward turn when Whirlaway reverted to his old habits and bore right in the Blue Grass Stakes to finish six lengths back in second place. A repeat performance occurred a week later in the Derby trial, resulting in another disappointing second place finish. Jones was now exasperated. The Derby was only five days away and Whirlaway still had not learned his lessons.
Then an epiphany of sorts overcame Ben Jones. He took his pocket knife and cut the left cup off of the colt’s blinkers. He surmised that with his field of vision hampered to the side he kept veering to, but the vision on the other side unimpeded, then hopefully Whirlaway would stay straight in the home straight. The day before the Derby, Jones had engaged Eddie Arcaro ride Whirlaway hard around the home turn into the stretch and, with Jones on his pony positioned ten feet off the rail, instructed Arcaro to blast Whirlaway through the opening between him and the rail. Whirlaway ran straight and true through the opening. Ah, perhaps the ticket to success had been found.
In the Derby, Whirlaway broke slowly and was as much as sixteen lengths behind the leaders along the backstretch. Arcaro asked his mount for his best. What followed was a breathtaking run in which Mr. Longtail sped past every horse ahead of him and ran perfectly straight coming to the finish post. At the wire Whirlaway was eight lengths to the good and had run the race in 2.01 2/5 to capture Calumet’s first Kentucky Derby. A star was unleashed and the American public embraced their new equine hero.
A week later at Pimlico for the Preakness Stakes, Whirlaway demolished the field again with a five and a half length victory to take the second jewel of the Triple Crown. The Belmont Stakes was still another four weeks away, so Ben Jones decided to give Whirlaway a race in the interim. Imagine that sort of training regimen in today’s day and age!
The interim race was against older horses and Whirlaway made short work of the field in the nine and a half furlong allowance. In the Belmont Stakes, Whirlaway with his new rider and blinkers put his name into the record books as the fifth Triple Crown winner with a dominating performance. Speed to spare was the DRF comment following Mr. Lontail’s Belmont crowning achievement.
The year of 1941 belonged to Whirlaway. Now we must remember that this is also the year in which a pair of legendary baseball players flirted with immortality. Joe DiMaggio, known as “The Yankee Clipper”, authored his still unchallenged fifty-six game hitting streak. Meanwhile in Boston “The Splendid Splinter” Ted Williams would become the last man to finish the season above the .400 batting mark for an entire year, with his remarkable .406 batting ave. Whirlaway and his new straight line speed outdid both of these two sports legends in headlines.
Following the Belmont, Whirlaway won the Dwyer and a Special Event to run his win streak to five. He lost his bid for six in a row when he was forced wide in the Classic Stakes and tired near the finish line. He was back in the winner’s circle in his next three races, taking the Saranac Handicap, Travers Stakes and American Derby. Whirlaway remains to this day as the only Triple Crown winner to win the Travers, known as the summer classic.
War Relic defeated Whirlaway in the Narragansett Special while in receipt of eleven pounds from the new TC champion. Whirlaway however was back on top with a dominating performance in the Lawrence Realization, easing up at the finish line with an eight length victory. The final race for Whirlaway in 1941 came in the two miles long Jockey Club Gold Cup. Whirlaway took the lead and held on as gamely as he could, but the long winded Market Wise caught him at the wire for the win. Never the less, Whirlaway was the unanimous choice for Horse of the Year.
Ben Jones gave Whirlaway a long and deserved vacation. The final race in 1941 was on September 27. Whirlaway entered his first race in 1942 on April 9 in the Phoenix Handicap at Keeneland. The reigning champion finished a strong closing second in the six furlong event over a muddy track, giving the winner Devil Diver, an up and coming future champion in his own right, a fifteen pound weight advantage. Giving copious weight to rivals would become the norm for Whirlaway throughout the year.
The next race saw Whirlaway finish second again to another up and coming multiple stakes winner in Sun Again. The race was an overnight handicap at six furlongs with Whirlaway carrying twenty-seven pounds more than Sun Again, however as he was getting to the winner Mr. Longtail exhibited his old habit of drifting out down the home stretch. Cause for concern? Perhaps.
Ten days later in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs, Whirlaway flew down the home stretch to win. He followed this with another driving performance to take the Dixie Handicap at Pimlico, with Eddie Arcaro now back in the irons. The team travelled to Belmont for the historic Suburban Handicap run at ten furlong s. Old foe Market Wise held of Whirlaway who had to go wide to get around a blockade at the head of the stretch. A similar scenario to the finish in the Carter Handicap meant that the champion could only muster a third. So now after six races with only two victories, it appeared as if Whirlaway may be losing his magic. To further complicate matters, Eddie Arcaro had been handed down a long suspension due to a series of infractions.
But, not so fast yee those who sounded the end of the great horse. George Woolfe was brought in to ride Whirlaway to win an allowance and then the Brooklyn Handicap by an impressive two lengths over Swing and Sway. Mr. Longtail was giving that rival eighteen pounds and still humbled the entire field. A second place in the Butler Handicap at old Empire Downs followed in which Whirlaway was blocked severely while making his run at the top of the home straight. He was running with twenty-nine pounds on his back more than the winner Tola Rose. Third place finisher Swing and Sway carried twenty less pounds.
After winning the Massachusetts Handicap in which he looked like the old Whirlaway again, the weight differential became even more pronounced. Following two more powerful stakes victories, Whirlaway then engaged the brash three year old Alsab, fresh off a dominating win in the American Derby, in a match race at Naragansett Park.
Alsab had won the Preakness and several other top class stakes earlier in the year and had become the new darling of the turf scene. The race was set to scale weight, meaning that Alsab as a three year old would carry 119 lbs to Whiraway’s 126 lbs. The race was an exciting affair. Whirlaway was gaining ground with every stride down the home stretch but at the wire Alsab had his nose in front. Both horses were gallant and the fans came away with having seen a match race worthy of the hype such events create.
Whirlaway went on to win five more stakes races after his clash with Alsab. Among the victories were the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Washington Handicap and the Pimlico Special, the latter in a walk over. He also had a pair of seconds and a third place finish among the eight races he competed in following the Alsab match. Whirlaway would be named as the champion handicap horse for 1942 as well as his second Horse of the Year title.
Calumet decided to bring Whirlaway back for a campaign as a five year old, despite the horse having sustained a slight tendon injury at the end of the 1942 season. Two lackluster performances were all that was needed to convince Calumet to retire Whirlaway to stud. He began his stallion career at Calumet and had limited success in the role. It seemed as if he left his brilliance on the track and could not pass on his speed to his progeny. The filly Scattered, out of Imperatice by Caruso, was the best of his eighteen stakes winners from one hundred and eighty-one named foals. Scattered won the CCA Oaks and the Pimlico Oaks for her grandest prizes. You may have noticed the name Imperatice. She is the dam of Somethingroyal, who in turn is the dam of Secretariat and Sir Gaylord.
Whirlaway was leased to French breeder of note Marcel Boussac in 1950 and later sold to the master breeder out right two years later. Unfortunately Whirlaway left nothing of remembrance in Europe and passed away in 1953 from a heart attack shortly after covering a mare.
Despite the disappointment to his stud career, nothing should take away the brilliance of Whirlaway as a race horse. He had oodles of speed, but he was also as challenging a horse as any trainer could have in his barn. His mental makeup provided some very frustrating moments for his connections, but when he was on he was breath taking to behold. And. He was on more than he was not. Whirlaway made sixty starts and won thirty-two of them. Many of those wins came in the top races on the planet. He won the Triple Crown, which alone puts him in exulted company. He had a streak of forty-eight races in which he never finished off the board.
The sight of Mr. Longtail became emblazoned in the memory of those who had the pleasure to see him race. Ben Jones, while bemoaning his colt’s lack of smarts, still regarded him as one of the greatest he had ever seen, let alone trained. Whirlaway’s come from behind style also endeared him to his fans and the racing world at large.
Quirky, challenging, fast, unique, or dumb as a post. Pick any or all of these descriptions and you have Whirlaway. The best descriptive word in my opinion is unforgettable.
(Photo courtesy of Calumet Farm archives)