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The spring, summer and fall of 1941 were a time of restiveness and uncertainty for the American people, many of whom assumed, correctly, that the U.S. would soon be drawn into World War II. Even so, the sports beat went on. As we could not escape being reminded during this past summer's many 50th-anniversary observances, '41 was the year Ted Williams hit .406 and Joe DiMaggio put together his 56-game hitting streak. But it was also the year the public fell in love with a sensational chestnut thoroughbred colt with a long tail. His name was Whirlaway.
Whirlaway was swift but temperamental. He could throw in a devastating three-eighths-of-a-mile kick, but he also could throw in the towel. He could not have won the 1941 Triple Crown without the training savvy of Calumet Farm's Ben Jones and the riding skills of Eddie Arcaro, but win it he did, and he was voted Horse of the Year for '41; he would be so honored again in '42.
Whirlaway was foaled on April 2, 1938, in the first American-sired crop of Blenheim II, the Aga Khan's 1930 Epsom Derby winner, whose offspring were noted for their soundness of body, but not necessarily of mind. That is, they were gifted but difficult to control. Calumet owner Warren Wright Sr. had purchased a quarter interest in Blenheim II when he was syndicated and brought to the U.S. in 1936.
Whirlaway demonstrated his speed—and his idiosyncrasies—in the very first start of his career, a five-furlong race at Lincoln Fields, near Chicago, in 1940. Even though he bore out badly coming into the homestretch and ran down the lane on the far outside, he won by a nose.
He was also a problem horse in the paddock. It seemed that no one at Calumet could control the willful 2-year-old. The task of trying fell to Ben Jones, who took Whirlaway as his private pupil.
Jones's son, Jimmy, who succeeded Ben as the trainer for Calumet, remembers his father's work with Whirlaway. "He just took that horse and wore him down," says Jimmy, who is retired and lives on a farm in Parnell, Mo. "He'd be gone two or three hours. Whirlaway was a bastard in the paddock. So they just went to the paddock every day. He stood in there and stood in there until Whirlaway got so he was the best horse you ever saw in the paddock.
"That was one of the greatest jobs of training I ever saw, really. He was a peculiar horse in that he had a very stubborn disposition, but he learned. He would respond to habit-building, and that's really what made the horse go."
Whirlaway had busy juvenile and 3-year-old seasons leading up to the Kentucky Derby, winning 10 of 23 starts. Ben Jones had tried seven different jockeys in his effort to control him. The jockey who rode him the most during this game of musical saddles was Johnny Longden, a future Hall of Famer.
The special training seemed to be working. But then, in his two starts immediately before the 1941 Kentucky Derby, Whirlaway reverted to his old practice of running wide. In both races—the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs—he was the favorite, and in both he bore out on the stretch turn and finished second.
His jockey was a 17-year-old named Wendell Eads. Now retired and living in Oakland, Ill., Eads says he wasn't strong enough to keep Whirlaway under control. "I was so small that I couldn't hold him," Eads says. "He was just too much horse for me."