Today at Aqueduct six hopeful three-year-olds will take to the track in the closest that New York comes to a Derby prep. It’s been a while since a winner of this race has figured prominently the first weekend in May, but we locals nevertheless look with anticipation at the sophomores who will either dash or enhance their connections’ Derby dreams.
The race is named for the only Triple Crown winner to win the Travers, too: fitting that such a marvelous three-year-old gives his name to an sophomore-restricted race. Then again—Whirlaway’s four-year-old season was pretty impressive, too.
It was that year that Whirlaway raced at the track that currently hosts his eponymous race. It’s something of a surprise to note that he raced at Aqueduct only three times in his 60-race career, and those three starts all came in June 1942.
Following a 1941 campaign in which Whirlaway had been named both champion three-year-old male and horse of the year, the chestnut son of Blenheim II, owned by Calumet and trained by Ben Jones, hit the board in all 22 of his 1942 starts, compiling a record of 12-8-2. Two of those wins and one second came at Aqueduct.
Whirlaway hadn’t won a sprint since April of the previous year, and his patented deep closing style meant that shorter distances were not his métier; true to form in the seven furlong Carter Handicap on June 13, Whirlaway finished third; Doublrab won it with Swing and Sway finishing second.
Nine days later, Whirlaway returned to the Aqueduct track in a mile and an eighth allowance; even with the extra distance, Whirlaway didn’t have it easy:
The little horse with a big tail had just far enough to go at Aqueduct
yesterday. Warren Wright’s champion, Whirlaway, needed every inch of the mile
and a furlong he raced to nose out Mrs. Parker Corning’s Attention…
Until the last three or four strides, it seemed he wouldn’t do it and the
two leaders [Whirlaway and Attention] roared under the wire together. The photo
sign went up on the board, but as the two leaders returned to the winner’s
circle the judges posted the order and a great howl of tribute went up from the
crowd as Woolf dismounted. (Kelley)
Whirlaway had set a track record for the mile and an eighth, carrying more weight (122 pounds) than he’d carried all year. Attention was a nose behind him, and with Swing and Sway two and a half lengths back in third.
Five days later, Whirlaway came back to Aqueduct in the Brooklyn Handicap. It was the Queens County Jockey Club’s Army-Navy Day, and all proceeds from the day above purse and stakes payments would go to the Army and Navy; earlier in the year, Belmont and Jamaica had held similar days, and New York racing had a goal of donating $2,000,000 for the war effort (Field).
Whirlaway didn’t have to work quite as hard as he’d had to the previous week, but given his penchant for coming from way off the pace with one exhilarating run, it seems that no Whirlaway win was ever pedestrian. As Times turf writer Bryan Field put it,
It was a thrilling race, but rather an expected thrill, since most now are quite
familiar with the powerful manner in which Whirlaway can turn on speed…
The vaunted rush, when it came, brought a yell from the crowd.
This time, the place and show spots were reversed, with Swing and Sway second and Attention third.
Before 1942 came to an end, Whirlaway had broken Seabiscuit’s earning record, becoming the world’s leading money winner. He was the champion handicap horse, and horse of the year for the second year in a row. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1959.
Another horse in 1942 might have laid claim to horse of the year honors: Alsab, who beat Whirlaway two of three that times that year. But William H.P. Robertson says that Whirlaway brought something that Alsab didn’t:
Whirlaway retained that certain aura of untapped resources, which gave the
impression that he could have won several races that he actually didn’t, and,
finally, he emerged…as the world’s leading money winner.
The horse with the flying finish and the memorably long tail (one of his nicknames was “Mr. Longtail”) overcame bad starts, bad manners, and bad habits to become one of racing’s most storied stars, and his race gives us a chance, in dreary February, to recall his memorable June at Aqueduct.
Here, an ESPN feature on Whirlaway, narrated by the marvelous Jim McKay, on Jewels of the Triple Crown:
More here on Whirlaway at Brooklyn Backstretch.
Works cited and consulted:
Champions. New York: Daily Racing Form Press, 2000.
Field, Bryan. “Whirlaway Takes Brooklyn Handicap As Aqueduct Ends.” Nytimes.com. New York Times. 28 June 1942. Web. 5 Feb 2010.
Kelley, Robert F. “Champion Defeats Attention By Nose.” Nytimes.com. New York Times. 23 June 1942. Web. 5 Feb 2010.
Robertson, William H.P. The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America. New York: Bonanza Books, 1964.
“Whirlaway.” Racingmuseum.org. National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Web. 5 Feb 2010.