Whirlaway’s Kentucky Derby, 1941

May 4th 2013 07:00 am |

Whirlaway in the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle (Turf and Sport Digest, June 1941)

In retrospect, all Triple Crown winners were born to be great. However, if we rewind to April and May of 1941, Whirlaway was just another 3-year-old who was, in the parlance of handicappers, “hard to figure.”

We can only get the real perspective by going back to the source. So, as we wake up to another Derby Day, let’s go back to 1941 when racing was in the midst of a special moment, on its way to its fifth Triple Crown winner.

In the Kentucky Derby issue of the Turf and Sport Digest in April 1941, the editors prominently featured two colts. Porter’s Cap and Our Boots received a full page endorsement that included a photo and a brief description of why they stood at the head of the 3-year-old class heading into the 67th running of the Kentucky Derby.

Many had discounted the 1940 2-year-old champion by the spring of 1941, but a columnist for the Turf and Sport, Jimmy Loftus, made a case for the colt who would go on to “get good” when it mattered most.  Loftus wrote this in his “Talk of the Turf” column in the April 1941 issue:

I’m going to string along with Warren Wright’s Whirlaway, champion 2-year-old of 1940, to win the Kentucky Derby…It’s true that Whirlaway was not a great 2-year-old champion and certainly did not make any new friends during his modest Miami campaign. But I saw him win at five and a half furlongs at Tropical Park in March and he looked like a new colt….[in that] effort it appeared as though the Blenheim II colt had been cured of his worst habit, bearing out.

Here’s what Ben Jones, the Wizard Horseman from Parnell, Mo., had to say about Whirlaway before shipping him to Keeneland in Kentucky: ‘The colt is as good as he was last Fall, I expect him to improve with hard racing and, if he does, he’ll win the Derby. Whirlaway isn’t a great colt but he is a good one.’

They say all the Blenheims have a ‘hot’ streak in them and they’re apt to be moody and erratic. Despite these things and all later developments in the weeks after this piece is penned, I still think that Whirlaway will give the gray Master of Calumet his first Kentucky Derby roses.

And, in spite of two second place finishes in Kentucky after the above was written and before the first Saturday in May, win the Derby he did. How Whilrlaway went off as the post-time favorite and the ensuing shock of his victory in the Derby and then the Preakness was beautifully told in the June edition of the Turf and Sport Digest by writer O’Neil Sevier:

Racing folks, and the fellows who write about racing, seem to be a unit in the opinion that the sixty-seventh Kentucky Derby winner, Whirlaway, is easily the most unguessable horse of the time. Like the little girl with the curl hat hung right down her forehead, he is very, very good when good and damned horrid when bad….Our Boots beat him at Keeneland so far and so easily as to destroy the notion in the heads of all save the Calumet stable entourage that he had so much as a fifty-to-one chance to score a Derby-Preakness Double

It was Calumet stable and affiliated money that sent him to the post time favorite at Churchill Downs over Our Boots, Porter’s Cap, Dispose and other worthier contestants, recent and even remote public form considered. It was not the money of the crowd of seventy thousand who saw him reverse himself outrageously and turn in just about the most amazing performance in the long history of America’s most flamboyantly exploited annual for Thoroughbreds of any age.

Of course, Whirlaway went on to become the fifth Triple Crown winner with a dominating win in the Belmont Stakes. The form reversal that came in May of 1941 stuck. After completing the Triple Crown sweep in the Belmont Stakes, Whirlaway won 18 of his final 33 career races. He only finished worse than second three times during that period and never further than four lengths from the winner until a fifth place finish in his final race where he pulled up sore in the Equipoise Mile at Washington Park in 1943.

Whirlaway was just another “hard to figure” 3-year-old before the 1941 Kentucky Derby. He finished his Hall of Fame career with 32 wins from 60 starts and over a half million dollars in earnings.

Let’s hope whatever colt wins this year’s Kentucky Derby goes on to greatness. While we may bet the wrong colt, nobody bets against seeing something special. A Triple Crown won’t “save racing” (whatever that means) but it sure would be a nice treat for those of us who spend our leisure time following the great sport of thoroughbred racing.


Jimmy Loftus, “Talk o’ the Turf,” Turf and Sport Digest, May 1941
O’Neil Sevier, “Whirlaway’s Whirl,” Turf and Sport Digest, June 1941

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Hope everyone has a great Derby day! Enjoy and good luck!

Filed in Calumet Farms,Kentucky Derby,thoroughbred racing history,Triple Crown,Whirlaway

One Response to “Whirlaway’s Kentucky Derby, 1941”

  1. Jordan Nichols says:

    I think Whirlaway is one of the most underrated of all time. Eddie Arcaro called him, “The runningest horse I ever rode. Not the best, but the runningest!”