Whirlaway: The "Runningest" Horse

By Jenny Kellner

WhirlawayEddie Arcaro called him the “runningest” horse he ever sat on. “Not the best, but the runningest,” he said.

His own trainer alternated between calling him dumb, stupid, and crazy. “You can teach him,” said Ben Jones, “but you can’t teach him much.”

But to thousands of fans who bet their shirts on him and won, Calumet Farms’ Whirlaway was more than the fifth Triple Crown winner. A brilliant chestnut with an unusually long and thick tail and a penchant for making every race an adventure by running all over the racetrack, in 1941 the crowd-pleasing “Mr. Longtail” often landed above Ted Williams, who batted .406 that year; Joe DiMaggio, who put together a 56-game hitting streak, and Joe Louis, who successfully defended his heavyweight title seven times, on the front pages of the nation’s sports sections.

On Saturday at Aqueduct Racetrack, six three-year-olds will go to post in the 1 1/16th mile Whirlaway Stakes, which will be run for the 30th time and is one of three races at the Big A named after Triple Crown winners, the others being the Gallant Fox and the Count Fleet. Nearly 70 years after he swept through the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, there are but a few who personally remember “Whirly,” but his legend lives on.

“When you watch films of his races, he was so visually impressive, not only in his stride but with that long tail flowing out behind him,” said jockey Richard Migliore. “He was so dominant.”

Whirlaway had, wrote Joe Palmer in the Blood-Horse, “an annihilating burst of speed which he can apparently turn on at any stage of a race.” But he also was as nervous as a “cat in a room full of rocking chairs,” as Jones put it, and had a habit of bolting to the outside coming off the turn. In the 1940 Saratoga Special, he went so wide he actually hit the outer rail, but still managed to win.

By the spring of 1941, eight different jockeys had been aboard the brilliant yet unpredictable colt, and after he lost his final two prep races, bearing out badly in the Blue Grass and the Derby Trial, Jones put a call into Arcaro, who was at the time riding for Greentree. “

But I don’t want to ride him,” Arcaro told Mrs. Joan Payson, daughter of the Greentree owner, who in no uncertain terms told the jockey he would be aboard the willful colt, as she owned Mrs. Warren Wright of Calumet Farm a favor.

The day before the race, Jones came up with a plan to cure Whirlaway of his habit of heading straight to the outer rail. He positioned himself on his pony about six feet off the rail at the head of the Churchill Downs homestretch, intending for Whirlaway to turn the corner and charge between the fence and Jones’ pony.

“I 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 recalled in his autobiography, “I Ride to Win.”

The strategy worked, and, equipped with a one-eyed blinker that Jones fashioned with his pocketknife, Whirlaway won the Derby in a then-record 2:01 2/5 with “speed to spare.” A week later, after falling so far behind the field he was out of the picture, he roared back to a thrilling 5 ½-length win in the Preakness. In the Belmont Stakes, knowing he couldn’t hold Whirlaway back after the half went in :49 2/5, Arcaro sent him to the front with a mile to go and he took the Triple Crown by 1 ¼ lengths.

“He was so good he made ducks and drakes of his opposition,” wrote Bryan Field in the New York Times. “The chestnut colt from the Calumet Farm raced through the stretch so easily that he had his ears pricking, and he also had that mightiest Triple Crown tilted jauntily on his handsome forelock.”

Whirlaway’s lone appearance as a 3-year-old at Aqueduct would come but two weeks later, when he won the Dwyer, which was called “a thrilling race, but an expected thrill.” He went on to win the Travers – the only Triple Crown winner to do so – and spent his 4-year-old season running primarily for war bonds, racing 22 times and raising $5 million, including $100,000 raised at Aqueduct on Army-Navy Day on June 27, 1942, when he won the Brooklyn Handicap.

Retired after two starts at age 5, with a record of 32 wins, 15 seconds and nine third from 60 starts and a bankroll of $561,161, which made him the all-time money earning thoroughbred, Whirlaway became a successful sire, and died in 1953 in Normandy, France. He was inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame in 1959.

“His consistency, his durability, his talent, his ability to raise money for the war effort and his penchant for charging to the lead after seemingly being hopelessly behind, combined to make Whirlaway a special horse in the hearts of Americans,” wrote Bill Finley on ESPN.com in 2005. “We don’t get Whirlaways any more.” 

Click here to view the 1941 Belmont Stakes results chart