Few intimate details are known about the life of Whirlaway. The horse who won the Triple Crown in 1941 was something of an enigma. Yet, those who had the privilege to see him compete would often talk about the experience for many years afterward. The truth is that Whirlaway suffered from something that has plagued other Triple Crown champions like American Pharoah. He was often criticized because the crop of three-year-olds he bested on his way to history were perceived to be weak in comparison to those from other years.
A Colt of Habit
Whirlaway was bred and owned by Calumet Farm in Kentucky. To this day the racehorses which are bred in Kentucky all enjoy a special kind of status. They are elevated above horses bred in other states because of racing rich history in the Bluegrass State. Naturally, expectations were high for Whirlaway. Calumet Farm had never had produced a Kentucky Derby winner.
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The colt’s birth date of April 2, 1938 was beneficial. It meant that if Whirlaway made it to the Kentucky Derby he would be competing as an actual three-year-old. Horses born late in the year would not even be three when the Derby was contested because all thoroughbreds have a universal birthday of January 1.
Whirlaway was assigned to trainer Ben A. Jones. The son of the trainer, Jimmy Jones, remarked that the colt was a creature of habit from the very start. In order to get him to train, things had to be just so. The colt did not like change. This became useful when Jones started creating habits that would benefit Whirlaway in his racing career.
There is no question that the strange personality of the horse made him a difficult subject. Even so, Jones persisted in his efforts to get the horse ready for a racing career. In 1940 it was time to see if Calumet could get that elusive Kentucky Derby winner.
Whirlaway at Two
One of the premier races for two-year-old racehorses has always been the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. This race features young horses that can factor into the Kentucky Derby the following year. It is one of the first indicators that a horse might have what it takes to be a champion.
Whirlaway won the Hopeful Stakes and also the Breeders’ Futurity Stakes and Saratoga Special Stakes. The trio of wins was enough to convince Jones and Calumet that the colt could hold his own in the Triple Crown series. Some racing pundits, however, were not so quick to concur. Many writers dismissed the achievements of Whirlaway because they believed he was born in a year that produced weak horses. These writers did not believe that Whirlaway was beating horses of significance.
Yet there were others who simply believed that Whirlaway’s dominance only exposed the weakness of other horses and not his own. The colt was posting regular workouts that were blazing fast. It could have been that he was simply that much better than the rest.
Whirlaway and the Triple Crown
At the Kentucky Derby drew close, Ben Jones was concerned about one of those habits Whirlaway was fond of creating. The horse had started to drift out to the middle of the racetrack as he closed toward the finish line. In a race like the Kentucky Derby with many horses this had the potential to create big problems. Drifting out and making contact with another horse could cause Whirlaway to be disqualified from the race.
Jones decided to put Whirlaway in a set of eye cups that severely restricted his vision. A few days before the Derby, Jones cut a small hole in the right cup so that Whirlaway had just enough vision to see horses to his outside. Jockey Eddie Arcaro gave he horse a final workout and Whirlaway did not drift. He was ready to go.
On race day the colt looked like the star he was, winning the race by eight lengths which was a record. His performance was enough to send other horses and trainers running for the hills. The Preakness turned out to be a route and when Whirlaway worked a time of 2:02.40 in preparation for the Belmont Stakes, the competition had virtually disappeared. Those who stepped up to challenge Whirlaway in the Belmont Stakes were just inferior to the colt. He won the race, and the Triple Crown, with ease.
This didn’t set well with some racing writers. Conquering the Triple Crown was not supposed to be an easy feat and Whirlaway made it look like a walk in the park. Instead of focusing on the fact that there just weren’t horses able to compete against him, the press began to say that Whirlaway himself was weak and only made it so far because all horses of the era were inferior.
Whirlaway After the Triple Crown
Whirlaway had more to do once he conquered the Triple Crown. In fact, he became the most heavily raced Triple Crown winner. Whirlaway competed in 60 events, winning 32 of them. He finished second 15 times and third 9 times in a career that lasted until he was six years old. He earned over $500,000 in a time when purses were very small compared to today.
The horse was sent to stud at Calumet farm in 1944. There were only a few notable winners sired by Whirlaway. He would up on a breeding farm in France and died there in 1953.
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