A True Equine Hero

By Jay Stephens

This year's opening day of the Keeneland fall meeting--Oct. 8--features a long overdue salute to Whirlaway. The "Calumet Comet" was the first Triple Crown winner to prep at Keeneland, and the opening day festivities will celebrate that fact. But there is much more to celebrate with regards to Whirlaway than simply his preparation at Keeneland or his victorious run at the Triple Crown in 1941. Whirlaway was a true equine hero.

Whirlaway not only prepped for the Derby at Keeneland, he raced there as a 2-year-old. After winning stakes in New York, he returned to the place of his birth--Lexington--to prepare for the Breeders' Futurity. He won a prep race on opening day of the meet and joined Our Boots and Blue Pair as favorites for the Futurity. The renowned Johnny Longden piloted Whirlaway to a one-length victory in that race on the final day of the meet.

He returned to Keeneland as a 3-year-old to tune up for the Derby. He won a six-furlong sprint in preparation for the Blue Grass Stakes, but in the Blue Grass Stakes and in the Derby Trial, a new, inexperienced rider was unable to control him adequately. He was beaten in both races. Three for four in his races at Keeneland, Whirlaway headed for the Derby--his owner and trainer accompanying him with renewed optimism because Eddie Arcaro had just been signed to ride him.

In Whirlaway's Derby, he ran the final eighth of a mile in 11 seconds flat, a record that has never been broken. Whirlaway's Preakness was just as electrifying. He came from last to win by 51Ž2 lengths, drawing away, prompting Eddie Arcaro to call him "...the greatest racehorse I have ever seen..." In the Belmont, he won from the front just as easily to earn the Triple Crown. To top off his 3-year-old season, he won the Travers, American Derby, Dwyer, Saranac, and Lawrence Realization. He is still the only Triple Crown winner to have also won the Travers Stakes.

Fred C. Broadhead, biographer of Whirlaway, points out that as Whirly began winning races before, during, and after the Triple Crown season, and gaining in fan popularity, people would come to the track by the thousands just to watch him work. His long, copper tail, flashing and whipping while he ran, earned him a new nickname: Mr. Longtail. That long, flashing tail became a trademark of his speed as he broke track records all over the country. He also demonstrated stamina and durability by winning races up to two miles in distance and running 60 times during his career without ever being scratched.

Whirlaway's legacy was secured during his 4-year-old season. In 1942, he became a hero in the truest, purest sense of the word. While the country geared up for World War II, he was volunteered to serve the war effort and bolster attendance at various tracks across the country. Whirlaway ran in support of the War Emergency Relief Fund (WERF), helping the racing community to donate more than $3 million to the war effort (more than any other sport). He ran in 22 races that year (nearly every other week), all across the country, guaranteeing record turnouts at American racetracks and increasing sales of war bonds in addition to the amounts generated for WERF.

Whirlaway was recognized as a hero to both racing fans and our soldiers serving in World War II. Ask most anyone who served in the military about horse racing during their time of service, and Whirlaway will be the one name that comes up in conversation. He provided a welcome respite from the rigors of war for those soldiers and sailors who could go to the tracks around the country and see him run.

Whirlaway's story ended in France, like so many of our World War II soldiers. He was leased and then purchased by Marcel Boussac, one of Europe's most celebrated Thoroughbred owners and breeders, to help rebuild France's depleted bloodlines. He passed away in France and is buried there along with the fallen soldiers that he served in his final racing campaign--gone, but not forgotten. His legacy of speed, durability, and courage lives on.

JAY STEPHENS is an attorney and a horse racing enthusiast living near Columbus, Ohio.