Ben Jones was one of the most gifted and influential trainers of thoroughbreds the sport has ever seen. But the Calumet Farm tutor never claimed to be a psychologist — amateur or otherwise.
[cleeng_content id="777002637" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]When Jones took the sole responsibility of training the royally bred Whirlaway in 1940, he quickly found that he needed more patience than the skills and knowledge to get the burnished chestnut home first in his races.
It was all too soon that Jones realized he has the fastest thoroughbred he’d ever trained but that he also had what he called a “knucklehead and the dumbest horse I’ve ever trained.”
Whirlaway didn’t run in a straight line. He would move at right angles away from the inside rail. In fact, in his first race it was reported that he quickly found his way to the outside rail and stayed there. It was also reported with equal amazement that he won the race despite running a much longer distance than his competition.
Jones had never seen anything like it.
He knew his charge was blessed with an immense reservoir of talent. But could Jones find the methods to get the 2-year-old around the track without running in the zig-zag manner Whirlaway was becoming accustomed to showing him?
Said Jones: “Whirlaway gave the impression of being tireless, able to gallop all day if we didn’t stop him.”
The bad habits the robust chestnut was getting used to had to be changed. “He was always ‘bearing-out,’ and when he had the lead he liked to slow down and weave across the track, apparently bored,” said the wizened, white-haired trainer.
So difficult — and so talented — was Whirlaway that he was the only thoroughbred at Calumet that Ben Jones trained. Ben’s son, Jimmy, was responsible for all the others the stable had in training.
Once Whirlaway began his racing career, the public took an immediate liking to him. He won. His quirky habits and striking physical features made him even more popular.
In the early 1940s thoroughbred racing was one of the country’s most popular sports . . . being rivaled only by boxing and major league baseball.
So well-known did the crooked-line running chestnut become that he was called “The Flying Tail” or “Mr. Longtail” because of the unusual length of his luxuriosly thick tail.
As Whirlaway approached the starting gate for his first race, trainer Jones was apprehensive about what the afternoon might hold. Jones had seen what his student could do with his quick bursts of speed. And he had seen what his erratic behavior could cause as well.
In Chicago the first race was anything but uncomplicated. It was if the object of the sport was to get to the far, far outside as quickly as possible and then stay there. The Flying Tail gave those patrons stationed next to the fence separating them from the racing surface a close-up look at his unorthodox style when he passed only feet in front of them in narrowly winning.
In the Saratoga Special, Whirlaway was so unpredictable that he actually slammed into the outside rail. He still recovered to win that time.
Jones spent hours a day trying to change the unnerving habits he was forced to endure from Whirlaway.
In his first year at it the wrinkles-causing chestnut did win the Hopeful Stakes and late in the racing season, the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland. It was in the Hopeful at Saratoga that near-disaster befell Mr. Longtail.
He was struck in one eye by debris flung back by the horses in front of him. Undeterred, he kept running and won despite racing with blurred vision. Jones was beside himself. Whirlaway could have lost the sight in the affected eye. And he missed two months of training while several veterinarians teamed with human specialists on trying to best treat the problem. The combined efforts were successful and there was a full recovery in time to win both the Breeders’ Futurity and the Walden Stakes at Pimlico before resting over the winter months.
Whirlaway was selected as the Champion Two-Year-Old Colt, an honor he shared.
After a win in a sprint race to open his 3-year-old campaign, Whirlaway made an unwelcomed return to his earlier erratic ways by moving yards and yards away from the rail during losses in the Blue Grass Stakes and the Derby Trial.
Jones had an idea.
He would try Whirlaway with blinkers that had only one eye covered. The thoroughbred couldn’t see the inside rail and might not have fear of it like before.
With jockey Eddie Arcaro aboard in the Kentucky Derby, the new equipment tried by Jones had to have been one of the reasons the late-running, copper-colored colt ran off to win by eight lengths.
The winning time was a new track record that would stand for more than 20 years. Then came the Preakness. Trouble in paradise.
Whirlaway was so slow to remove himself from the starting gate that his position in last place was so far removed from the field that he and jockey Arcaro were never troubled by the dirt and dust the others caused as they ran on more than 18 lengths ahead.
Along the backstretch, Arcaro moved. The field was engulfed. Coming through the homestretch, Arcaro’s red silks flashed home in front by nearly six lengths.
Arcaro was much impressed. He said: “Not even a cyclone could have headed us off. I don’t think I ever passed as many horses in such a hurry. I might as well have been shot from a gun. What a horse! What a horse!”
The way Whirlaway won the Preakness had most of the country’s trainers keeping their eligible 3-year-olds away from the Belmont Stakes. A field of only four went postward.
A slow-pace strategy failed the other three entrants. About half-way through the long race, Whirlaway romped into an uncontested lead and made equine history by becoming Calumet Farm’s first Triple Crown winner.
Ben Jones had been rewarded for all his habits-changing work with Mr. Longtail. Jones had to doff his signature white hat to his often-reluctant student. Horse of the Year honors came to Whirlaway.
The next year at age four, Whirlaway won often enough to become the first thoroughbred to earn over $500,000. The Pimlico Special drew no other entries and he won in a “walkover.” A second Horse of the Year award was his.
Inducted into the U.S. Racing Hall of Fame in 1959, Whirlaway had been the fastest creature of bad habits the sport had ever seen.
As trainer Jones once explained, “He had his habits. To be successful, you had to create habits for him. So we created the habits we wanted him to do.”