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Whirlaway vs. Alsab: Two Favorites Compete

Whirlaway and Alsab match race, 1942 Narragansett Park.
A postcard illustrating Alsab beating Whirlaway in the Narragansett Special, 1942.

Two brilliant Thoroughbreds had the hearts of the American people in 1942. One of these horses represented triumph after overcoming obstacles. The other was a symbol for the underdogs, a classic tale of rags to riches. These horses and their careers were a source of inspiration and excitement for the people suffering through the woes of World War II.

The first horse, Whirlaway, swept the Triple Crown in 1941 despite his terrible nerves and bad habits that cost him many losses early in his career. The second horse, Alsab, was sold for a mere $700 as a yearling, but through a rigorous schedule he rose to the top of his crop with stakes win after stakes win.

Both horses were absolutely adored by the public, so it was only natural for them to want to see Whirlaway and Alsab face each other on the racetrack.

Whirlaway: The Quirky Triple Crown Winner

The 1930s was a decade of change for Calumet Farm. Calumet was initially founded by William Wright to breed and raise Standardbred racehorses, but made the transition to Thoroughbred racehorses when Warren Wright took over in 1932 following his father’s death.

Warren found success almost immediately and in 1939 he decided to take the next big step - he hired famed horsemen Ben A. Jones, who had won his first Kentucky Derby in 1938. Soon enough, Ben’s son Jimmy also joined Calumet Farm. Ben Jones received his first string of Calumet horses in 1940, which included a two year old named Whirlaway.

Whirlaway was a gorgeous chestnut colt sired by Blenheim II, an English Derby winning stallion that Calumet Farm had purchased interest in, out of a mare named Dustwhirl (Sweep). Though Whirlaway’s pedigree blessed him with good looks and a lot of potential for talent, the Jones’ quickly realized that he had inherited his mother’s nerves and had some bad habits as well.

Whirlaway was stubborn and antsy and was prone to throw temper tantrums if things didn’t go his way. It took a great deal of repetition for him to learn anything and he hated to deviate from his routines. Ben Jones famously referred to Whirlaway as “the dumbest horse I've ever trained”. Nevertheless, Jones knew that Whirlaway could be successful if these issues were worked out, so he put his focus almost solely on Whirlaway and left the rest of the Calumet string under the care of his son Jimmy.

Jones’ dedication to training Whirlaway got the colt 4 stakes wins as a two year old. Still, he lost nine races that season, some of which were attributed to his awful habit of bearing out towards the outer rail when going around turns.

Calumet Farm had their sights set on Kentucky Derby glory with Whirlaway, but these bad habits cost him a few important races en route to the big race. It was clear that Ben A. Jones was going to have to find a fix for the colt’s tendency to bear out if he were to win the Kentucky Derby. Jones knew that it wasn’t going to be a simple fix, so he got creative with ways to teach his colt how to stay on the inner rail when going around turns.

One morning, he rode his pony out onto the racetrack and stopped on the turn so that there was only a small gap between himself and the inner rail. Jones then instructed Whirlaway’s jockey Eddie Arcaro to gallop the colt through that small gap. Eddie Arcaro reluctantly agreed.

“I could see that old man just sitting there on his pony,” Eddie Arcaro recalled. “I was bearing down on him full tilt, and I was scared to death we'd have a collision that would kill the both of us. But B.A. [Jones] never moved a muscle, and Whirlaway slipped through there as pretty as you please. Then I knew we had a hell of a chance in the Derby.”

The idea was a success, but Ben A. Jones had another plan to fix the Calumet colt’s quirks; just one day before the Kentucky Derby, he cut off one of the cups from Whirlaway’s blinkers. This would give Whirlaway full vision of the inner rail while preventing him from seeing the outer rail.

The creative training techniques and equipment change worked wonders on Whirlaway; he stayed on course and won the 1941 Kentucky Derby by eight lengths. The newly minted Kentucky Derby winner then traveled to Pimlico where he easily won the Preakness Stakes, then to New York where he won the Belmont Stakes.

He was not only Calumet Farm’s first Kentucky Derby winner, but also just the 5th horse to win the Triple Crown in racing history. Thanks to creative thinking and a lot of hard work, Whirlaway had defeated his bad habits and quirks to win some of the most important races in the sport. It was an inspiring feat, one that had the entire country rooting for the long-tailed, chestnut colt as he continued on with his marvelous career.

While Whirlaway continued winning stakes race after stakes race, there was another horse that caught the eye of the American people.

[Video: See footage of Whirlaway winning the Triple Crown]

Alsab: The $700 Classic Winner

Whirlaway was a regally bred racehorse that certainly lived up to his pedigree’s potential. This wasn’t the case for Alsab, who was by an unproven sire named Good Goods and out of a mare named Winds Chant (Wildair), who was once sold for a mere $90.

Alsab’s breeder Thomas Piatt decided to sell his yearling at Saratoga in New York. The bay Good Goods colt caught the attention of trainer August Swenke, who purchased the colt for Illinois attorney Albert Sabath for just $700, a price well below the average of the sale ($1763). Though they did not expect to see a ton of talent from the colt,they were determined to get their money’s worth.

While Whirlaway was making his Triple Crown bid in the spring of 1941, Alsab was racing often at tracks in Kentucky and Florida. He really began to show some talent when he moved to Illinois; Alsab started winning stakes races at Lincoln Park and Arlington Park. Soon enough he was winning stakes races and setting track records in Massachusetts, Maryland, and New York too. He even participated in a match race at Belmont Park with another highly-regarded two year old, Requested, which he won in track record breaking fashion.

By the end of his juvenile season, Alsab had raced 22 times and won 11 stakes and a match race. Albert Sabath had so much hope for his two-year old colt that he nominated him for the Kentucky Derby in October of 1941. Horse racing fans raved about this cheap horse who rose to the top of the ranks. He represented the underdogs, those who weren’t expected to become successful but achieved the seemingly impossible through hard work and dedication.

Alsab was also known for his intelligence. While Whirlaway was known for his nervousness and quirks that made him difficult to handle, including rearing and jumping, Alsab actually made daily routines easier for his team. “In a letter reprinted in part by Hervey, Sabath described how Alsab was an active participant in his morning ritual,” published. “Before going to the track, he would pick up each of his four feet in succession so that they could be cleaned, then bow his head so that his customary blinkers could be applied. After his exercise, he himself decided how many times he needed to circle the shedrow before he was completely cooled out and when it was appropriate to re-enter his stall.”

Though Alsab had been very successful during his juvenile season, his rigorous routine was starting to get to him. He was absolutely exhausted and never truly got a break. Even during his “vacation” in November of 1941, Alsab was receiving visitors to his stall at Keeneland often - everyone wanted to meet this colt that had such an amazing story.

This exhaustion prevented Alsab from beginning his three-year old season well. He raced far too often and turned in bad efforts in response to his exhausting schedule. Some of the public that had once adored him considered him “washed up”. He seemed to be just another horse who was too good, too soon - something that just couldn’t last.

Nevertheless, Albert Sabath kept his colt on track for the ‘42 Kentucky Derby. In the run for the roses itself, Alsab was able to get up for second place, 2 ¼ lengths behind the winner Shut Out. One week later he was set to run in the Preakness Stakes, which should have seemed like an impossible task considering how much Alsab had been racing. However, he actually looked better than he ever had after his runner-up effort in the Kentucky Derby.

Alsab proved his good looks were no fluke by powering home to a stakes record breaking win in the Preakness Stakes - he finished just two-fifths of a second off of the track record Seabiscuit had set in the Pimlico Special in 1938.

Alsab took aim at more classic glory in the Belmont Stakes, but again finished second to the Kentucky Derby winner Shut Out by two lengths. He exited the race with a splint injury and thus finally rested.

Despite the close losses at Churchill Downs and Belmont Park, the $700 yearling had won the Preakness Stakes and was officially a classic winner. He had turned away all naysayers, even with a grueling race schedule that few others would have been able to handle. His was truly a rags-to-riches tale and the American people admired him for it.

But the American people also adored their Triple Crown winner Whirlaway. Any sports fan will wish to see the best of the best compete against one another, so when both Alsab and Whirlaway were entered into the 1942 Narragansett Handicap, horse racing fans were more than eager to see the epic showdown.

[Video: See clips of Alsab as a two year old and Whirlaway at three]

Whirlaway v. Alsab

Just five days before the two horses were set to meet, Alsab ran a taxing 2nd in the Washington Park Handicap. Albert Sabath felt that Alsab wasn’t going to be at the top of his game for the Narragansett Handicap, so to the disappointment of all racing fans, he decided to scratch his $700 colt from the race.

It didn’t take much longer for Whirlaway and Alsab to actually meet, however. Both of the colt’s connections agreed to participate in a 1 3/16 miles, $25,000, winner-take-all match race at Narragansett Park on September 19th. Sports fans from all around the country were eagerly awaiting the showdown.

“A race between Whirlaway and Alsab appeared assured today in the $25,000 Narragansett special Saturday,” the Madera Tribune published. “Whirlaway, greatest money winner of all-time, already is at the track, and owner Albert Sabath assured the Narragansett Racing association last night that his $7OO bargain horse, Alsab, will be shipped immediately from Chicago for the mile and three-sixteenths test.”

The race was guaranteed to be an interesting one. Both of these colts were known for their come-from-behind running tactics and there was much debate on which horse would take the lead in the match race. Whirlaway was older and more accomplished, so he was going to have to carry 126 pounds in comparison to Alsab’s 119.

But while Whirlaway was going to have to carry more weight, he had the advantage of being ridden by Geroge Woolf, who had piloted Seabiscuit to victory in his 1938 match race with Triple Crown winner War Admiral. Carroll Bierman, the jockey who took the underdog to victory in the Champagne Stakes as a two year old, was going to be in the irons for Alsab.

More than 35,000 people packed into Narragansett Park to watch the race of the year, the highly-anticipated match up of the horses they so adored.

The match race turned out to be well worth the hype; Whirlaway trailed behind Alsab by three lengths at the beginning of the race and in his typical fast-closing fashion, he came flying after Alsab when the two reached the stretch. However, the tough little Alsab was not willing to be passed by the older horse. He held on to his quickly-diminishing lead to win the match race by a nose.

Though Alsab had won, Whirlaway’s connections were not willing to back down. The two tough horses met again in October, this time in New York for the Gold Cup at Belmont Park. The race ended with Whirlaway getting his revenge over the younger colt - he crossed the wire ¾ of a length ahead of Alsab.

They met once more just a few days later in the 2 ¼ mile New York Handicap. Whirlaway had a change of race tactics this time - he went to the lead rather than making his customary come-from-behind run and it backfired. Whirlaway, carry 130 pounds, was run down by his rival Alsab, who was carrying 121 pounds.

That was the final time Whirlaway and Alsab met on the racetrack.

Conclusion: Two Great Horses

Whirlaway and Alsab were both fantastic racehorses. Whirlaway’s story of overcoming his nerves and bad habits to win the Triple Crown, among many other great races, is one that racing fans still love to read today. His story is just as fascinating now as it was in the 1940s, when the American people desperately needed an inspiring story to cling to.

Alsab’s life and career follows another story line that horse racing fans can’t help but to love - the underdog, a cheap horse with little expectations, beat the big boys time and time again. His is a tale of sweet success against the odds.

The background and career of these two horses were quite different, but the American people admired them both. Whirlaway and Alsab represented all of the things we love about horse racing: inspiring stories, dramatic racing, and pure competition.


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