Seventy-nine years ago Monday, the mercurial chestnut colt Whirlaway romped down the stretch at Churchill Downs to win the Kentucky Derby in record fashion to begin an iconic summer.
Whirlaway trailed by 14 lengths down the backstretch before recovering to win by eight lengths, a margin that's been equaled three times but never surpassed. His winning time of 2:01.40 set a new race record that stood from 1941 until Decidedly broke it at 2:00.40 in 1962.
It was a runaway win that was soon followed by victories at the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes to complete the Triple Crown, making Whirlaway the fifth of 13 horses to have achieved horse racing immortality.
Whirlaway also won the Travers Stakes in 1941 and remains the only horse to ever pull off that superfecta.
None of that may have come true for the quirky horse affectionately known as "Mr. Longtail" if not for a couple of key changes made by Hall of Fame trainer Ben Allyn Jones.
Whirlaway developed a bad habit of not holding his line and veering off course in losses, so, according to a 1941 Derby recap in Louisville's The Courier-Journal, Jones devised a "one-eye blinker" that shielded Whirlaway's right eye.
"He's a funny horse," Jones told the legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice in a story that ran in the Sept. 4, 1941 issue of The Aspen (Colorado) Times. "He is fast and strong and game – but he also wants to have his own way. You can never quite figure him out. He can be as quiet and relaxed as a plow horse, or he can be as nervous as a caged panther.
"You may remember before the Derby that I told you at times I thought Whirlaway was half-witted. Either he was or I was. I was wrong about Whirlaway, anyway. He just happens to have a mind and a personality of his own."
Jones' other change was to bring in future Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Arcaro, who came to Aiken as a contract rider at Greentree Stable's training center, according to the Jan. 29, 1943 Aiken Standard and Review.
Arcaro had ridden Lawrin to victory at the Kentucky Derby in 1938, and he again worked his magic – with some help from Whirlaway's custom headgear – to win again, and again, and again, making Whirlaway a sports superstar in 1941 while Ted Williams was batting .406 and American League MVP Joe DiMaggio was compiling his record 56-game hit streak during one of baseball's most famous seasons.
Arcaro, the son of Italian immigrants, is among the elite jockeys in horse racing history and quickly built a reputation as a jockey who could get the most out of a horse.
"The Arcaro boy, who talks the equine language, is considered to be worth two lengths to any horse he throws a leg over," reads the lead-up to the 1938 Derby in the May 6 Aiken Standard and Review.
"The Master," as Arcaro was known, is credited with 4,779 wins worth north of $30 million. He's the only jockey to win the Triple Crown twice – his second was aboard Citation in 1948 – and won the Kentucky Derby five times, the Preakness Stakes six times and the Belmont Stakes six times.
He nearly had a half-dozen of each but was perhaps looking too far into the future when given his choice of mounts for the 1942 Kentucky Derby.
Arcaro had his pick of two Greentree colts, conditioned by legendary trainer John M. Gaver Sr. at the brand-new Aiken Training Track, and chose Devil Diver, who had already beaten Whirlaway that year, over eventual winner Shut Out.
"It was a splendid personal triumph for Caver, who last winter in Florida said he was going to win the race and he made good on his assertion," reads the May 6, 1942 Aiken Standard and Review. "Saturday morning, before the Derby, he told a reporter that he was keenly disappointed because Arcaro did not take Shut Out instead of Devil Diver."
"Gaver said that he was afraid that Devil Diver was not quite ready for such a test, but that Shut Out was the one he probably would win with. He was disappointed with Arcaro, because he said that the famous jockey could ride the colt perfectly. He may have been right on that, but in (Wayne D.) Wright he certainly engaged a boy who filled the colt to perfection. He never did a better job than with Shut Out."
Arcaro and Devil Diver took sixth at Churchill Downs, but he made the switch over to Shut Out to win the Belmont Stakes. Devil Diver gained the upper hand the following year to beat Shut Out in three races, according to an Aug. 22, 1980 Aiken Standard story about Devil Diver's induction into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Three years earlier he was elected to the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame.
Arcaro's license was revoked in the fall of 1942 after his temper got the best of him when a fellow rider cut him off during a race. Arcaro got his revenge by putting the offending jockey over the inner rail, and later he was banned. According to his obituary, which ran in the Nov. 16, 1997 issue of the Aiken Standard, he was reinstated almost a full year later after Greentree Stable owner Helen Hay Whitney wrote Jockey Club chairman William Woodward, Sr., to say she wanted to see Arcaro race in her famous pink and black silks again before she died.
He returned to racing and continued piling up wins, including a dominant return to Aiken by winning more than half the races over three days at the Aiken Thoroughbred Trials in 1946. Arcaro reunited with Jones to win a few more Triple Crown series races, and he left an indelible mark as one of the greatest of his profession.
“I’ve been on many of the best horses," reads a quote in his obituary. "Take the best horse in any race and put any one of a dozen or more riders on him, and he’ll come through.”
Not as often as Arcaro, though, and without his transcendent skill – and Jones' inventiveness – the stubborn and bushy-tailed Whirlaway may have never stayed on track to win the Kentucky Derby, much less the Triple Crown, 79 years ago Monday.