Brooklyn is looking northward, both literally and figuratively, as we head into this MassCap weekend; a former denizen of Boston and its environs, I’m making my maiden voyage to Suffolk Downs this weekend, feeling slightly guilty for making my first visit on a Big Race Day. Railbird and I had all good intentions of an eastward trip this summer…but the allure of Saratoga kept us firmly rooted in upstate New York.
So as we look up and east, we also look back, to the 1942 renewal of the Massachusetts Handicap, the seventh edition, won by Triple Crown winner Whirlaway.
Unfortunately, local accounts of the race are hard to come by, as Boston Globe stories from 1924 to 1979 have not yet been digitized—what a shame! So, likely to the chagrin of the Boston locals, we have once again to rely on the accounts from the New York Times to get a sense of the day at the races on July 15th, 1942.
Whirlaway had won the Triple Crown the previous year, and much as there is now hype surrounding Curlin’s proximity to the all-time earnings record, newspaper accounts emphasized that a win in the MassCap would confer that honor on Whirlaway:
The $44,850 waiting for the victor in this mile-and-a-furlong classic would
skyrocket Whirly’s earnings to $455,336, shooting him past Seabiscuit’s $436,730
and putting him well on the way to becoming racing’s first half-million-dollar
breadwinner. (New York Times)
Ah, yes, “Whirly.” Apparently the Associated Press writer who wrote this account was on quite familiar terms with the chestnut, familiar enough to refer to him by his nickname. Or nicknames:
But “Mr. Big Tail” is going to need lots more than the new racing shoes they put
on him today. While he figures to be the odds-on choice, in spite of the
130 pounds on his back, he still has to beat the old hoodoo that has strewn
Suffolk’s short stretch with broken dreams year after year.
Published on the morning of the big race, the article suggested that William Woodward’s Apache and Mrs. Parker’s Corning’s Attention loomed as major contenders for the MassCap crown; it also notes that on the morning before the race, “Whirly” was caught in a “dazzling 59 4-5 seconds for his final five-furlong workout,” which the writer took to mean that the race day strategy would be to get Whirlaway closer to the lead than he normally was, closer than the “city block by which he ordinarily trails at the start.”
As it turned out, Whirlaway ran the race he customarily ran, setting a track record and winning by two and a half lengths:
The flaring long tail of Whirlaway flashed burnished gold in the sun at Suffolk
Downs today. All even at the end of a mile, Warren Wright’s great little
champion came roaring through the last furlong of the $62,600 Massachusetts
Handicap to leave the surprising Rounders, nearest of his six rivals, two and a
half lengths back at the finish and thus gained his rightful place among the
immortals of the American turf as the greatest money winner of all time.
Sitting in the press stand was John (Red) Pollard, who had ridden
Seabiscuit through most of his career. When Whirlaway started he
yelled: “Here comes. He’s in,” and from that point there was only
the thrill of watching the devil’s red of the Calumet Farm silks move through
straining horses like a flaming bullet. (New York Times)
More than 30,000 people turned out to see Whirlaway in the MassCap on that day, and one has to imagine that bulk of them were rooting for this champion with the endearing, pet-like nicknames.
The Suffolk Downs website presents the history of the race in detail, with year by year reports on various aspects of the race. T.D. Thornton’s excellent Not by a Longshot: A Season at a Hard Luck Horse Track tells the story of the fall and rise in the fortunes of Suffolk Downs, including an intensive look at the 2000 MassCap, won by Running Stag, who’d finished second the previous year. Anyone who reads the book can’t help rooting for Sufferin’ Downs, the (affectionate?) nickname for the East Boston track, and the recent stories of owner Richard Shields’ investment in and commitment to the track are encouraging.
This will be something of a whirlwind trip, so posting may be light over the next few days, but I’ll be back by Sunday, with a full report on my northerly field trip. Safe trips to all, and unsurprisingly, I’ll be rooting for, if not betting on, Commentator.