“Whirlaway in action was more impressive than Whirlaway on his record, however, as the colt lost several times through bearing out, dawdling at the start, or other foolishness; when he finally made up his mind to run, he could turn it on, and it was agreed that he would be harder to beat at longer distances the next season, especially if his manners should improve.” William H.P. Robertson, on Whirlaway as a two-year-old.
Whirlaway, whose eponymous race goes Saturday at Aqueduct, raced 16 times at two, winning 7 of those starts and hitting the board in 13; even that race record, though, was disappointing, given both the colt’s talent and his proclivity for bad behavior, the latter of which was as noteworthy as Whirlaway’s accomplishments.
Growing up didn’t seem to help Whirlaway shed his unproductive leanings on the racetrack, as his three-year-old campaign got off to a promising if rather mediocre start, with unimpressive wins in three of five starts, none of which were stakes races.
Nonetheless, Whirlaway was the favorite in that year’s Derby, confidence rewarded with his eight-length win and new track record. You can see most of the race here, though not, unfortunately, what would seem to be the most exciting part of the race, Whirlaway’s move around the turn:
Whirlaway went on to win the Preakness by five and a half, and Robertson characterizes the Belmont as “merely a workout for the Calumet comet,” who faced only three other horses, had a seven length lead on the backstretch, and “sauntered home to win the Triple Crown.”
This longer clip includes more of the Derby (though still not enough), along with Preakness and Belmont footage and an interview with Whirlaway’s Triple Crown jockey, Eddie Arcaro. Watching Whirlaway is great; watching Whirlaway accompanied by the late Jim McKay’s masterful, clever, stylish narration is even better:
Two months later, Whirlaway also won the Travers, becoming the only horse to win what racing historian Edward Hotaling called the grand slam.
The fall of Whirlaway’s four-year-old year was focused on a series of races with Alsab. While Whirlaway had been securing champion three-year-old and Horse of the Year honors in 1941, Alsab was being named champion two-year-old, and the two met three times in less than a month in September and October of 1942.
At Narragansett Park in Rhode Island on September 19th, Whirlaway and Alsab raced a mile and three-sixteenths in a weight for age match race. Whirlaway under George Woolf carried 126 pounds, Alsab under Carroll Bierman 119. It was a terrific race, the stretch run of which you can see here, and the youngster took it by a nose, though Whirlaway was closing solidly and would likely have won in another stride or two.
In a New York rematch in the Jockey Club Gold Cup two weeks later on October 3rd, the horses met again under the same jockeys with the same weight for age conditions, and this time, Whirlaway evened the score, winning by a length. Billed as a “Chicago battle being decided near the sidewalks of New York,” as the owners of both Whirlaway and Alsab were Chicagoans, the race was described as a “hammer and tongs battle between the Calumet Farm flier and…Alsab” (“Leads Alsab Home”).
(Aside: did a horse ever have more nicknames that Whirlaway? Mr. Longtail, Whirly, the Calumet comet, the Calumet Farm flier…)
And despite being a mature (ha!) four-year-old, Whirlaway was back to his old tricks:
Whirlaway tried to run out at the turn after a half mile and it was not until the field was almost back at the two-mile starting point, half a mile from the finish, that the real battle began.
There Woolf attempted to send his mount up to Alsab, but he couldn’t. Biding his time for an eighth of a mile, he tried again and this time got alongside, but Alsab drew off. (“Leads Alsab Home”)
Woolf sent Whirlaway a third time; Alsab remained in front by half a length, but finally gave way near the eighth pole, and Whirlaway won by three quarters of a length, evening the score with his rival.
The two faced off one more time, a week later in the New York Handicap on October 10. Alsab carrying 121 beat Whirlaway, who was third carrying 130. Game, set, match to Alsab, though one might perhaps find excuses for Whirlaway, who was asked to renounce his customary running style, characterized by Bryan Field as a “change of tactics that looked like a stroke of victory until it turned into a boomerang”:
A complete reversal of riding orders caused Whirlaway to be sent for the lead, as the field was a big one and it was feared that he would have to give away too much distance coming from behind around a big and tiring field. (“Whirlaway Third”)
Whirlaway under 130 pounds and Lochinvar under 105 battled for a mile and a half; Lochinvar gave way and Whirlaway was challenged by two other horses, one of which was his rival Alsab. The three “ran as a team” for a quarter of a mile until Whirlaway faded; Alsab won the race and followed in the older horse’s hoofsteps, named as champion three-year-old of 1942, while Whirlaway retained his Horse of the Year crown and earned handicap horse of the year honors.
Field, Bryan. “Leads Alsab Home.” New York Times. 4 Oct 1942. 4 Feb 2009.
Field, Bryan. “Whirlaway Third.” New York Times. 11 Oct 1942. 4 Feb 2009.
Hotaling, Edward. They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995
Robertson, William H.P. The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America. New York: Bonanza Books, 1964.