Lady and The Track | December 1, 2022

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Home » Derby Culture » Chasing Triple Crown History Part III

Chasing Triple Crown History Part III

Chasing Triple Crown History Part III: The attainment of the Triple Crown is a horse racing achievement that is equally illustrious and elusive. Only eleven horses in the long history of the races have been able to complete the trio, and there have been numerous near-misses in the meantime. However, the three races have not alway been considered to be some marvelous achievement, and it was many years after horses had already accomplished the task that it was recognized as such.

Whirlaway – 1941

A horse more charismatic and peculiar than Whirlaway could not have been designed. Born in 1938 on Calumet Farm as a product of Blenheim II and the Sweep mare Dustwhirl, the 15.2 hand blazed chestnut colt would grow to demonstrate some interesting habits on the racetrack.

Calumet owner and breeder Warren Wright, Sr., sent Whirlaway to trainer Ben Jones to be prepped for the racetrack. As a two-year-old, the colt would win several important juvenile races, including the Saratoga Special, Hopeful Stakes, and Belmont Futurity. His wins were even more impressive due to his seemingly unbreakable habit of running to the outside rail on each turn for home. In the Saratoga Special, the colt nearly went down at the start and ran in last place for most of the race, so when he ran almost directly into the outside rail on the final turn, spectators went ahead and accounted for a loss on Whirlaway’s part. However, the colt’s signature late closing kick was employed, and he ended up beating rival New World by a length.

Whirlaway’s erratic running habit was not his only vice. Several horsemen were needed to get the “outlaw” of a horse saddled, and Jones had to try everything he could think of to make the colt comfortable on the track. Large groups of people were often brought into his barn to surround the horse so that he would learn to be at ease around crowds, the horse was saddled and unsaddled over and over to get him used to the process, and Jones on a pony would leave only a narrow opening on the rail for his exercise riders to force the colt through to break him of his outside-running habit. Eventually, Jones had to simply cut off the left blinker of his equipment so that the horse would focus more on the inside rail than on the outside one. The long-suffering trainer was often at his wit’s end, and he even once said that Whirlaway was the dumbest horse he ever trained.

In spite of his various issues, Whirlaway completed his juvenile season as the earnings leader and best two-year-old of 1940. The colt failed to impress much more in preparation for the Kentucky Derby, however, running second in both the Blue Grass Stakes and the Derby Trial.

Whirlaway entered the starting gate for the “Run for the Roses” on a sunny day on May 3, 1941. The colt broke from post position four out of eleven, and, as was his habit, ran at the back of the pack. He was still there at the quarter-mile pole, but when asked, Whirlaway devoured the field on his way to an eight-length margin of victory in the record-breaking time of 2:01.40.

Whirlaway, or “the Flying Tail” on account of his unusually long tail, entered the Preakness Stakes a week later as the favorite after his dazzling performance in the Derby. The chestnut was again in no hurry to get going as he essentially walked out of the gate, but when asked by jockey Eddie Arcaro in the final half-mile of the race, he immediately responded. He passed the seven other horses in a mere twenty seconds and ran off to a 5-1/2 length victory.

In the final jewel of the Triple Crown, Whirlaway was never in trouble of defeat. Only three other horses showed up for the 73rd Belmont, and Arcaro and his favored mount took the lead after going a mere half mile of the 1-1/2-mile trip. He opened up to a relaxed seven-length lead and was so certain to achieve victory that his guide eased him for the rest of the race on his way to becoming the fifth Triple Crown champion.

Kentucky Derby 1941 Footage:

Count Fleet – 1943

Count Fleet is a lovely example of an ugly duckling developing into a beautiful swan. By Kentucky Derby champion Reigh Count and out of the Haste broodmare Quickly, Count Fleet was born an ugly, gangly brown colt. Owner and breeder John D. Hertz tried to sell the colt, but he was so unattractive that he had no choice but to keep him and race him.

In his first two starts under the tutelage of G. D. “Don” Cameron, Count Fleet swerved and hit the horses near him in the gate before running on to lose. Jockey Johnny Longden ultimately convinced Hertz to take the colt off the market as he believed the speedy colt would be something, and in his next start, Count Fleet broke his maiden in a sprint. He won several other juvenile races in dominating style, convincing the East Coast racegoers that he was one of the best two-year-olds in the country. However, he then lost both the Washington Park Futurity and Futurity Stakes.

The Futurity Stakes would mark Count Fleet’s final loss of his career. He went on to smash the record times set by Alsab and Jack High in the Champagne Stakes and equaled the track record in the Pimlico Futurity. Bu the end of the year, he captured the honors as the top two-year-old in the nation and looked to be a favorite for the upcoming classics.

Count Fleet was so created for speed that he even made a race out of walking about to cool off. After twenty minutes of walking the horse, the first hotwalker would have to call for relief to walk the horse for the rest of the forty-five minutes.

As a three-year-old Count Fleet prepped at Oaklawn Park and Belmont Park, and during this time the once unattractive colt blossomed into a handsome brown horse. Count Fleet made and won six starts before the Kentucky Derby, including the Wood Memorial in track record time.

Under old pal Johnny Longden, Count Fleet stepped into the gate of the Kentucky Derby on May 1 as the overwhelming favorite at 1-2. The strapping brown colt immediately took the lead out of the gate and stayed there unchallenged to win by three lengths. His victory prompted Longden to note that he was certainly the best horse he had ever ridden.

Because of his relatively slow time in the Kentucky Derby, Count Fleet did attract some skeptics regarding his chances in the Preakness Stakes. Of course, on Preakness day a week later on May 8, Count Fleet would lay all doubts to rest. Only three other horses arrived to face the Derby victor, but Count Fleet made it seem as if he were racing all alone. Over a slow track, Count Fleet won by eight lengths in 1:57.40, only a full second faster than the track record.

Like other Triple Crown champions, Count Fleet tackled the Withers Stakes between the Preakness and the Belmont to stay sharp, and he again won easily by six lengths.

In the Belmont Stakes, only two other horses were sent out to be slaughtered by the impressive brown colt. Slaughter them he did as he raced off to a 25-length victory in 2:28.60, breaking War Admiral’s stakes record for the distance.

Unfortunately for the racing world, the Belmont Stakes would be Count Fleet’s final race due to an irreparable injury. However, the sixth Triple Crown champion would have measurable success on the farm, including siring a Kentucky Derby winner in Count Turf and thus forming a triad of related Kentucky Derby winners.

Triple Crown 1943 Footage:

Assault – 1946

For the first and, at least thus far, only time, a Triple Crown winner would hail from outside of Kentucky. Assault, a chestnut colt foaled by the Equipoise mare Igual and by the stallion Bold Venture, was born at the enormous King Ranch in Kingsville, Texas. His creation was an event that almost didn’t happen. Igual was so sickly as a youngster that it took every treatment imaginable to simply keep her alive, but she was able to recover to live out her life as a broodmare for farm owner Robert J. Kleberg Jr.

Much unlike his dam, Assault was so lively as a young colt that he almost destroyed himself. While frolicking around the ranch, the colt stepped on a sharp stake and ran it through his right front hoof, nearly crippling himself. The same veterinarian who worked wonders with his dam managed to do so with Assault as well, but the colt was left with a malformed hoof that caused him to develop a peculiar style of walking.

When Assault was sent to Max Hirsch to train for his life as a racehorse, the trainer had little optimism regarding his chances at success. It took him four tries to break his maiden, and in a total of nine starts, the colt only met victory twice with his second victory coming in the Flash Stakes as a 70-1 longshot.

The colt wintered in South Carolina and was deemed good enough to try racing again as a three-year-old. 1946 looked to be Assault’s year as he took the Experimental Free Handicap and the Wood Memorial before the Kentucky Derby, but he followed those wins with a loss in the Derby Trial. His poor performance in the Trial was chalked up to his harmful habit of striking himself on his legs, resulting in the necessity of applying adhesive bandages to his hocks before allowing him to run.

Following this disheartening performance, Assault was sent off at 8-1 behind numerous favorites in the May 4 Kentucky Derby. With jockey Warren Mehrtens as his guide, Assault started well and ran in stalking position on the inside. With a quarter of a mile left in the race, Mehrtens encouraged his mount, and Assault responded with a strong drive to the finish line eight lengths in front.

Assault’s success in the “Run for the Roses” was astonishing to all, including his own connections. The colt garnered some respect from that victory and moved on to the Preakness Stakes, this time playing as the favorite for the first time in his life. Assault again ran in the pack but this time had a troubling ride as he was forced out of position and urged to move forward sooner than was the norm. He moved to four lengths in front by the last furlong, but he had little fight left when Lord Boswell quickly closed to challenge him. The Texas-bred gamely held on to win by a neck but not without collecting some criticism as a horse that could not hold his speed over distance.

As such, Assault lost favoritism for the Belmont Stakes. The colt stumbled at the start but quickly recovered to run his race in the middle of the pack. This time calling on him at the proper time, Mehrtens urged Assault, and the colt responded to claim victory by three lengths, winning a race he was certainly not expected to win but thus claiming honors as the seventh Triple Crown winner.

Kentucky Derby 1946 Footage:

Citation – 1948

The Calumet patriarch Warren Wright, Sr., would experience Triple Crown fame twice, once with Whirlaway and again a mere few years later through Citation.

Citation was bred at Calumet Farm. A blood bay colt by champion sire Bull Lea and out of the Hyperion mare Hydroplane II, he, like his two full siblings before him, was mostly dismissed as a rather ordinary foal. Oh, how Citation would prove them wrong!

Sent to be trained by Ben Jones, the colt impressively won his first five starts, including a record-breaking run in a five-furlong sprint in the time of :58. In his sixth race he faced another Calumet homebred in Bewitch, a daughter of Bull Lea who had won seven consecutive races. Bewitch would expand her streak to eight victories with her victory by a length over Citation in the Washington Park Futurity. The young colt’s loss in that race did little to discourage him as he went on to win the Belmont Futurity Trial, the Belmont Futurity over Bewitch, and Pimlico’s Futurity to claim consideration as the top two-year-old of 1947.

By that time the colt had developed into a racehorse with a simply perfect disposition, and his obvious love of running was unmatched. “Big Cy” began his three-year-old season in similar style to his juvenile year by easily taking four consecutive races in Florida, causing Ben Jones to claim, “This is the best horse I’ve ever had.” Citation hadn’t yet displayed all he had.

While Kentucky Derby day on May 1 was sunny and bright, the track was labeled sloppy from earlier rain. Citation went to the post as a dual entry with Coaltown, another threatening Calumet star. Coaltown went off as the favorite, and at the break he got to the front first with Citation stalking him. Under Eddie Arcaro, Citation was left behind by about six lengths in the backstretch, but at the half-mile pole, Arcaro had little to fear. Citation responded to his first cluck to get moving and caught up to Coaltown within a few strides, but his stablemate was soon left in his dust as Citation moved to the finish line four lengths in front.

Coaltown retreated for the Preakness, and only three other horses showed up to compete against the Derby champion. They may as well have stayed home as Citation simply galloped along another sloppy track to win by 5-1/2 lengths. Perhaps his only real challenge was in the winner’s circle when he balked at having the traditional winning photograph with the blanket of flowers taken.

To stay sharp for his final Triple Crown challenge, Jones entered his bay champion in the Jersey Stakes on May 29, a race Citation took by eleven lengths. On Belmont Stakes day, seven opponents appeared to face a hopefully cursed Citation. To their delight, the dual classic winner stumbled at the start, but the expert runner righted himself quickly and was able to get to the front of the field by the first turn. It was then all over for his rivals as Citation and Arcaro bounded off to an eight-length victory and the title of America’s eighth Triple Crown winner.

Citation remained unbeaten for the rest of the year, and his reputation began to match that of Man o’ War as racing enthusiasts discussed his greatness. The champion returned to race for many years after his dominating three-year-old achievements, and he even became horse racing’s first millionaire. Appropriately enough, when he was retired in 1951, he rode home to a successful stud career at Calumet Farm by train in a car shared with his old rivals Bewitch and Coaltown.

Kentucky Derby 1948 Footage: 

Related Links:
Chasing Triple Crown History: Part I
Chasing Triple Crown History: Part II