Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 78 days to go!

Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 78 days to go!

78 Days!!!  Whirlaway, the flashy chestnut colt that was affectionately known to his followers as the “Calumet Comet”, or “Mr. Longtail”, was bred and owned by the famed Calumet Farm. Warren Wright, along with a partnership, imported the 1930 Epsom Derby winner, *Blenheim II, that they purchased from the Aga Khan. Wright then bred the stallion to his stakes producing mare, Dustwhirl, with the mating producing Whirlaway in Blenheim II’s first American crop. Blenheim II was known as being “slightly mad”, while Dustwhirl was high-strung, so it was no surprise that Whirlaway was nervous and a bit of a head case, however he was also tireless, full of fire, and tenacious fight.

As a 2YO he really had a flair for lugging out badly, even as far as running into the outer rail in one race that he still managed to win. That wasn’t always the case as his antics cost him several races. Trainer Ben Jones grew increasingly frustrated with the colt, although he knew that Whirlaway was a colt of quirks and habits that he needed time to overcome. As a result, the elder Jones sent the rest of his string of horses to his son Jimmy to train so that he could focus on Whirlaway. Ben created routines to help the colt, while Whirlaway would throw tantrums if there were any deviations from them. Jones also kept his tail long; believing that when he was running it would trail out behind him and help keep horses from running up on him.

Even with his crazy running style, he still had an amazing kick like no other, using it to overcome and win enough stakes to earn him 2YO Male Champion honors. Starting his 3YO campaign in Florida, he contested four races with 2 wins and 2 thirds before shipping to Keeneland. There he ran in the 6 furlong A.J. Joyner Handicap, pulling off a neck victory as a prep for the Blue Grass Stakes. Going off as the favorite in the Bluegrass, the old antics appeared once again as he bolted on the turn, losing to Our Boots by six lengths. The Tuesday before the Derby, the chestnut was entered in the Derby Trial; the result was a repeat of the Blue Grass. By reason of his two losses before the Derby, Jones decided to improvise on Whirlaway’s blinkers, making a one-eyed blinker by cutting the cup off of the left side. He also called in his former rider, Eddie Arcaro, to ride the “wacky one” as he was being called by the newspapers.

Arcaro arrived in Louisville Thursday night, and Jones had the jock on his Derby mount first thing Friday morning. Jones had been working with making Whirlaway have to go in between objects that he couldn’t duck out from, trying to get him used to steering inside. Jones instructed Arcaro to run the horse between himself and the rail, while he stood less than 10 feet off of the inner rail on his pony. Arcaro, while scared and thinking they would surely collide, thought that if Jones was crazy enough to stand there, then he would try it. Jones never moved while Whirlaway went right through the opening. The newly fashioned blinkers seemed to make the difference, though Arcaro and Jones were the only ones that knew of the adjustment.

Whirlaway’s Derby was known as the biggest, richest, and fastest, as it took place in front of a record 100,000 people, gave owner Warren Wright of Calumet Farm $61,275, in addition to winning over a fast track, in a time of 2:01 2/5, shaving 2/5 off of the record set by Twenty Grand in 1931. The enormous crowd that swelled the Louisville track made Whirlaway the favorite, despite his erratic behavior. The colt was the last to reach the paddock, as he was jogged in front of the grandstand to acclimate him to the giant crowd.

The field of 11 broke from the enclosed starting gate, with Whirlaway and Arcaro saving ground on the inside, in eighth place after the half mile. Arcaro was instructed to let Whirlaway do his running once they reached the stretch, however he was having a hard time holding his mount that was full of run and energy. They had moved up into 6th by the time they reached the far turn, then fourth at the top of the stretch, only 2 lengths behind the leaders. Arcaro let Whirlaway out a notch, resulting in an amazing burst of speed.

Walter Haight of the Washington Post described it, writing that at that point “Whirlaway told his 10 rivals to go to the place that is paved with good intentions…”  Arcaro later said that he felt as if he were flying through the air, nearly being catapulted out of the saddle. It was no wonder; the duo flew home the final quarter in :23 3/5, winning by eight lengths.

The track record breaking performance would stand for 20 years. The official description of the race: “Responded with much energy to take command with a rush and, continuing with much power, drew out fast in the final eighth.” One week after the Derby Whirlaway would win the Preakness by 5 ½ lengths, very easily and geared down, after running at the back of the pack until the ¾ mile marker, when he would go from 7th to 1st in a quarter mile.

Ten days after the Preakness, he was entered in a $2500 Allowance race, in which he earned $1,658 for the win. The race was to keep the flighty colt sharp. Two days before the Belmont, Whirlaway worked a mile and a quarter in 2:02.40. He would only face 3 others in Belmont, whose plan was to slow the pace, hoping to throw off Whirlaway’s late run. In spite of their attempts, Eddie Arcaro wasn’t caught off guard, and upon reaching the half-mile pole, yelled, “The hell with this fellas, I’m leaving.” The pair would go on to win easily by 2 ½ lengths, clinching the 5th Triple Crown. ”The Flying Tail” would be the 1st of 8 Kentucky Derby winners for Calumet, as well as the 1st of their two Triple Crown winners.

After the Triple Crown, he went on to win the Dwyer, American Derby, Saranac Handicap, and the Lawrence Realization, in addition to becoming the only Triple Crown winner to win the Travers. Near the end of his 3YO campaign, the Jones string of horses was sent to California. While there, the bombing of Pearl Harbor happened, resulting in keeping horses from shipping out until March. In spite of not being able to race since September, Whirlaway was still voted the 3YO Champion as well as Horse of the Year. Whirlaway would finally get to start his 4YO season in April at Keeneland, where he finished second twice before heading to Churchill to win the Clark Handicap.  The impressive chestnut won many races, becoming known as the War Horse as he ran for War Bonds. He won the Pimlico Special in a walkover as no other horse was found to challenge him. In his final race as a 4YO, the Louisiana Handicap, a race set up for as War-Relief effort, Whirlaway would be victorious; however in doing so he bowed a tendon.

He would finish the season as the first horse to earn $500,000, being named 4YO Champion Male and repeating as Horse of the Year. Never able to overcome the injury, he finished third and fifth in two attempts to return at five. Not the same champion on the track, he was retired to Calumet for stud duty. He had some success there as a sire, although it was not as much as they had hoped. The decision was then made to lease Whirlaway to Marcel Boussac, who stood Whirlaway at his farm, Haras de Fresnay-le-Buffard, in France. After a time, Boussac would buy him outright. Whirlaway would regrettably pass away from a heart attack while covering a mare, which led to the beloved stallion being buried in France.

Eventually his remains were returned to the United States and buried in the Calumet cemetery. After his passing, the Courier-Journal ran an article that read: “It will take a lot of horse to so catch the throat and lift the heart as Whirlaway did that day in 1941 when he roared down the stretch all alone, his long tail flying in the Kentucky breeze…”

Rickelle  Nelson

Rickelle Nelson

Reservations Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum