War Hero: Whirlaway and the War-Relief Effort

December 11, 2021

By Andrew Hanna

On December 7th, 1941, Japan unleashed a series of surprise attacks on islands across the Pacific– most notably the infamous bombing of Pearl Harbor. In just seven hours, the nation invaded the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, and numerous English colonies. Every attack resulted in a Japanese victory. Worse still, their planes sank four of the eight ships stationed at Pearl Harbor and severely damaged the others, killing 2,403 people and effectively crippling the American Pacific Fleet. The following day, the United States Congress declared war on Japan– formally drawing the nation into World War II.

By the beginning of 1942, the Allies’ outlook seemed bleak. With the exception of England, virtually every country in western Europe had fallen under Axis control. According to the National Holocaust Memorial Museum, “the German army was victorious in an almost unbroken chain of battlefield successes… until the winter of 1942-1943.” The situation in the Pacific wasn’t any better. In “arguably the most devastating loss in British military history,” Singapore (then an English colony) surrendered to Japan on February 15th. Japan proceeded to advance at a startling rate, capturing territories such as Bataan, Indonesia (then known as the Dutch East Indies), and Myanmar.

In response to the dire situation, the American government called for citizens on the home front to dedicate themselves to the war effort. Across the country, women filled manufacturing jobs that men had left; Americans were asked to ration goods and recycle useful materials; and individuals were encouraged to purchase war bonds. During this tense period, horse racing was suddenly faced with an uncertain future. As the United States became preoccupied with the war effort, the government began to impose restrictions that impacted racing. While Franklin D. Roosevelt had declared that “it would be best for the country,” if major league baseball continued, he didn’t say anything about the fate of America’s oldest sport. To convince the government that horse racing was a valuable national pastime, tracks across the United States began to hold “war-relief days.” On designated days, venues pledged to donate their profits to the war effort, proving that racing significantly benefitted the nation. Ironically– given the importance of their mission– the sport’s most potent star was a flighty, quirky colt whose trainer had reportedly dismissed as the “dumbest horse I’ve ever trained.”

His name was Whirlaway.

From the outset, Whirlaway was both a blessing and a curse to his handlers. His father– Epsom-Derby-winner Blenheim II– was notorious for bequeathing a mixture of blinding speed and eccentricity to his progeny. Whirlaway was no different. “You can teach him,” his renowned trainer, Ben Jones, grumbled. “But you can’t teach him much.” During his juvenile season, Whirlaway demonstrated potential by annexing such races as the Breeders’ Futurity and the Hopeful Stakes– victories that earned him recognition as the Champion Two-Year-Old Colt. On the other hand, the precocious colt frustrated his handlers by racking up nine losses; in the Pimlico Futurity, for instance, he veered unnecessarily wide around both turns and finished third. Additionally, Whirlaway often quit abruptly whenever his opponents ran directly behind him– a behavior that repeatedly compromised his performances.

While Whirlaway’s idiosyncrasies could be maddening, he also happened to be one of the most talented horses that Ben Jones had ever trained. Consequently, Jones dedicated himself to the erratic colt. Over the course of several months, the trainer spent much of his time coaxing, conditioning, and teaching Whirlaway. He didn’t stop there. Worried by the colt’s tendency to stall mid-race whenever a horse approached him from behind, Jones stopped trimming Whirlaway’s tail altogether. Whenever the colt ran, the appendage billowed out behind him– dissuading his opponents from coming too close and earning him the nickname “Mr. Longtail.”

“That was one of the greatest jobs of training I ever saw,” declared Ben’s son, Jimmy. “He [Whirlaway] 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.”

In spite of Ben’s extensive efforts, the colt was inconsistent during his early three-year-old season. Although he racked up two wins at Hialeah Park, he also lost four races en-route to the Kentucky Derby. Ben Jones was undeterred. To ensure that his star pupil didn’t ruin his chances by careening wide around the homestretch turn, he created a “one-eye blinker” to cover Whirlaway’s right eye. One day before the Derby, he boosted legendary jockey Eddie Arcaro onto the colt’s back, climbed onto a stable pony, and positioned himself ten feet away from the homestretch rail. Unless Whirlaway’s new headgear worked, the colt would crash into his trainer at close to forty miles per hour. “I could see that old man just sitting there on his pony,” Arcaro recalled. “I was bearing down on him full-tilt, and I was scared to death we’d have a collision that would kill the both of us. But B.A. [Jones] never moved a muscle, and Whirlaway slipped through there as pretty as you please.” Equipped with his new blinker, the colt sailed through the Kentucky Derby to triumph by eight lengths– rewriting the track record in the process. Whirlaway quickly annexed the Preakness Stakes in spectacular style before advancing to New York’s Belmont Stakes. He won easily, establishing himself as the fifth Triple Crown winner and catapulting Calumet Farms to national prominence. Two months later, he achieved immortality by becoming the only Triple Crown winner in history to capture the Travers Stakes. Ultimately, Whirlaway concluded the year with thirteen wins from twenty starts and was honored as both the 1941 Champion Three-Year-Old Colt and Horse of the Year.

By the time America entered World War II, “Mr. Longtail” reigned as America’s most beloved racehorse. With the fate of their sport in question, racing’s most influential figures realized that they could use the colt’s popularity to increase their contribution to the war effort. Encouraged by Herbert Swope– the chairman of the New York State Racing Commission– venues agreed to donate the day’s receipts whenever Whirlaway competed at their tracks. The champion’s connections rose to the occasion enthusiastically. To support racing’s response to World War II, Ben Jones planned a demanding campaign that would allow Whirlaway to race as often as possible.

After opening his season with two close losses at Keeneland, the colt was shipped to Churchill Downs for the Clarke Handicap. After trailing for much of the race, Whirlaway accelerated and engaged in a stretch duel with a gelding named Aonbarr. When the two swept under the wire, they were so close that a photograph was required to determine the winner. Despite giving away twelve pounds, Whirlaway had triumphed by a head. Eleven days later, he sped to an equally stirring victory in the $25,000 Dixie Handicap. Afterwards, Whirlaway was sent to Belmont Park to contest the May 30th Suburban Handicap.

Sadly, the Suburban turned out to be a disappointment for both the colt’s backers and Calumet Farms. Several races before the event, one of Calumet’s runners– Miss Sugar– earned a win but was promptly disqualified for interference. Subsequently, another one of the stable’s horses narrowly missed winning the Roseben Handicap. Whirlaway’s luck wasn’t any better. From the start of the Suburban, the leaders set a slow pace in an effort to preserve their mounts’ energy. Deceived by this tactic, Whirlaway’s jockey, Eddie Arcaro, didn’t unleash his mount’s homestretch rally until it was too late. Ultimately, the colt finished second to Market Wise– who had beaten him by a nose in the Jockey Club Gold Cup the previous year. To add insult to injury, the final race was won by another Calumet horse; the runner was subsequently accused of a foul and disqualified. In spite of these setbacks, the day proved to be a resounding success. Attracted by Whirlaway’s presence, more than 50,000 people had flocked to Belmont Park– setting a new state attendance record and bolstering racing’s War Relief Fund.

Two weeks later, Whirlaway attempted to redeem himself in the seven-furlong Carter Handicap. Burdened with a 130-pound impost, the champion broke poorly, slid into last, and fell far behind the swift pace. “Whirlaway,” one witness noted, “… was once as far as 20 lengths back.” As the field hit the homestretch turn, the colt was still dead last. Suddenly, Whirlaway’s jockey hauled him to the extreme outside and urged the champion forwards. The colt’s response was breathtaking. “With busy, almost rapid-fire strides, the little fellow went to work,” a turf scribe declared. “He gained steadily and by the time they reached the head of the home stretch [sic] he was only nine or ten lengths behind Doublrab, which had assumed the lead by this time.” Streaking down the homestretch, Whirlaway began to sweep past his opponents as he drove for the wire. Unfortunately, the colt didn’t have enough time to regain the ground that he’d lost– although he came a close third– but his stirring performance earned him the admiration of the crowd nonetheless. Whirlaway, one journalist declared, “tried desperately and courageously to get home in front but found that giving weight to sprinters and trying to beat them at their own game was too much for him.”

On a more positive note, the champion’s heroic effort apparently sharpened him for the contests ahead. After easily capturing an allowance race, Whirlaway continued on to the historic Brooklyn Handicap. Carrying 128 pounds, the colt flew to a 1-3/4-length victory.

Seven days later, Whirlaway returned to action in the Butler Handicap. Despite being blocked at the start, the champion rallied impressively and finished second to Tola Rose– a distant longshot who had carried 103 pounds to Whirlaway’s 132.

Despite his near miss in the Butler, the colt’s runner-up performance boosted his lifetime winnings within $27,244 of Seabiscuit’s earnings record. His handlers were impatient for Whirlaway to snag the top spot. After eleven days’ rest, the colt was entered into the lucrative Massachusetts Handicap– which boasted a purse of $61,000. Enticed by the opportunity to witness Whirlaway’s bid for the history books, well over 30,000 fans flooded into Suffolk Downs on race day. The champion didn’t disappoint them. Lugging 130 pounds, Whirlaway started sluggishly and fell into a comfortable rhythm. “For a while there,” one journalist stated, “[Ben] Jones probably was a little nervous about it.” After six furlongs, the champion finally made his move. His progress was startling. “He hit the others as the field moved into the far turn,” a witness remembered. “He hit them so hard, he was past the last three like an express train passing a slow freight.” As the crowd began to cheer, Whirlaway overhauled the front-runners and emerged into the lead. Running well ahead of the pack, he swept under the wire– shattering the track record. More importantly, his winnings allowed him to supplant Seabiscuit as the richest racehorse in history.

Soon afterwards, Whirlaway was shipped west to Arlington Park, where he finished a game second in the Arlington Classic. He quickly rebounded by capturing two successive handicaps.

Even in the wake of Whirlaway’s remarkable accomplishments, one horse stood between the champion and a second Horse of the Year title: Alsab. The three-year-old colt was everything that Whirlaway wasn’t. Whereas Calumet’s tenacious star boasted a star-studded pedigree, Alsab was plainly-bred; his mother– an undistinguished mare named Winds Chant– had once been traded for $90. Moreover, his sire, Good Goods, was a successful but far from remarkable racehorse who had yet to prove himself at stud. After Alsab was consigned to Saratoga’s Fall Yearling Sale, a horseman named August Swenke– representing an Illinois attorney called Albert Sabath– snatched him up for a mere $700. Improbably, the colt quickly proved to be a durable, brilliantly fast competitor. His disposition also differed starkly from Whirlaway’s. While the flighty Triple Crown winner was infamous for his irksome behavior, Alsab was recognized for his intelligence and easy-going manner. “Alsab,” one writer would note, “was an active participant in his morning [training] ritual. Before going to the track, he would pick up each of his four feet in succession so that they could be cleaned, then bow his head so that his customary blinkers could be applied. After his exercise, he himself decided how many times he needed to circle the shedrow before he was completely cooled out and when it was appropriate to re-enter his stall.” By the time that Whirlaway surpassed Seabiscuit’s earnings record, Alsab had risen to national prominence by capturing the Preakness Stakes and a host of other prestigious events. In the process, the story of the colt’s humble origins and unlikely road to success had endeared him to racing fans across America.

Naturally– given both the magnitude of the obstacles the stars had overcome and their contrasting personalities– demand for a match race between the two quickly emerged. After some discussion, their owners agreed to stage a 1-3/16-mile, $25,000 special event at Narragansett Park. The public received the announcement with tremendous enthusiasm. “The entire turf world,” proclaimed sportswriter Joe Lee, “is awaiting the meeting between Alsab and Whirlaway.” Although Whirlaway had the advantage of being more accomplished and mature, he would be required to carry 126 pounds– seven more than his younger rival. To add to the suspense, both racehorses were known for being late closers who preferred to track the pace before seizing the lead in the homestretch.

On September 19th, 1942, an eager crowd of 35,000 surged into Narragansett Park. They were treated to an electrifying spectacle. At the break, Whirlaway dropped behind Alsab and fell three lengths back. After waiting patiently in the backstretch, his jockey– George Woolf– asked him the question. Whirlaway responded with a furious drive. He whittled down Alsab’s lead and started to draw alongside him, but the younger colt refused to quit. In a stirring performance, Alsab held off Whirlaway to win by a nose.

To many, however, his triumph was far from decisive. “I’m not satisfied that Alsab is better than Whirlaway,” George Woolf admitted. “I’d like another race at a mile and a quarter. I think we got him one jump past the wire. That’s been the consolation of many a loser.”

Whirlaway didn’t have to wait long for another chance at Alsab. After finishing second in the Manhattan Handicap, he was entered into the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup– where he would face Alsab for the second time. His task certainly wouldn’t be any easier. In spite of the result of the match race, Whirlaway would still have to concede seven pounds to the three-year-old superstar. Even so, the large crowd “bet $105,970 on Whirly’s nose”– installing him as the 11-20 favorite and setting a New York wagering record in the process. In one of the most brilliant performances of his career, Whirlaway stalked the pace from behind before motoring into second. With six furlongs remaining, he accelerated and drew alongside Alsab. A thrilling duel ensued. For a quarter of a mile, Alsab grimly stayed even with his older opponent as they sped through the backstretch and raced into the final turn. When the two hit the homestretch, George Woolf hauled back and “belted” Whirlaway with his whip. The colt bounded forwards and pulled away from Alsab. At the finish, Whirlaway was three-quarters of a length in front. The champion’s spectacular win validated his handlers’ faith in him and– more significantly– established him as the first racehorse to ever earn more than $500,000.

Whirlaway was unable to defeat Alsab in his next performance (the New York Handicap). Hauling nine more pounds than his rival, the champion tired and slogged under the wire in third. Two weeks later, he returned to his winning ways by capturing the rich Washington Handicap. Afterwards, he was shipped to Pimlico Racetrack for the historic Pimlico Special. To the disappointment of the track’s officials, however, Whirlaway was so feared that no owner dared to challenge him in the winner-take-all event. On October 28th, the colt pranced onto the track alone and covered the race distance at an easy gallop. Ironically, Calumet’s second Triple Crown winner– the indomitable Citation– would also complete the Pimlico Special in a walkover seven years later.

After contesting two more races, Whirlaway closed out the year with an authoritative win in the Louisiana Handicap. In recognition for his outstanding four-year-old campaign, he was honored as both the Horse of the Year– earning seventy-six votes to Alsab’s forty-five– and the Champion Handicap Horse. As a consolation prize, Alsab was named the Champion Three-Year-Old Colt.

Whirlaway made an astonishing twenty-two starts over the course of 1942 and contributed significantly to racing’s War Relief Fund. By the end of the year, it was estimated that Mr. Longtail had helped to raise more than $5,000,000 for the organization– the equivalent of almost $85,000,000 today.

Photo: Kentucky Derby Museum, Kentucky Derby.com

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