The date was September 19, 1942. The United States was embroiled in the Second World War and in the world of thoroughbred horse racing; the race of the year was set to go down in America’s smallest state. After Alsab had to be scratched out of an expected meeting with Whirlaway in the rich Narragansett Special a week earlier, a mile and three-sixteenths, $25,000 match race at Narragansett Park was created to test the two champions.
It was truly a meeting of horses from opposite sides of the track. On the one hand you had Whirlaway, not always the easiest horse to work with, but nonetheless, a defending Horse of the Year, former Triple Crown winner, and the current star of the powerhouse Calumet Farm. His opposition was Alsab, a $700 purchase with less than regal bloodlines. The diminutive runner needed ten starts to win his first stakes race, but through nearly constant racing for two seasons, was in position, like Whirlaway, to become a two-time champion.
The previous year, Alsab earned the two-year-old championship for Chicago owner, Albert Sabath, in large part to a ten race winning streak that finished off an ambitious 22 race campaign, and included a seven length romp in the Champagne. Meanwhile the headstrong Whirlaway, aka Mr. Longtail, had put things together just in time for legendary trainer, Ben Jones, to sweep America’s Triple Crown in fantastic fashion.
In 1942, both horses were far from unbeatable, but had proven to be at the tops of their respective divisions. Alsab had won several stakes, including a Preakness score, and second place finishes in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont. Whirlaway’s patented rally had become a certainty, and he either won or had been closing fast in all of his races while often carrying heavy imposts. With a win a few months earlier in the Mass ‘Cap he had surpassed Seabiscuit as racing’s all-time money winner.
The Rhode Island match race turned out to be one of our nation’s greatest races. As expected, Alsab took the early lead and opened up nearly three lengths midway through the challenge. Whirlaway, the 3-10 betting choice, would not give up without a fight, however. Mr. Longtail, under George Woolf, drew abreast Alsab with a powerful rally with more than an eighth of a mile still to run. Alsab was resolute though, as the two champions sprinted to the wire. Whirlaway was still gaining as the two hit the Narragansett finish line, but not quite fast enough. After a mile and three-sixteenths of thrilling action, the photo finish camera separated the two warriors by a nose, with Alsab the winner.
The two great champions would go on to have two more meetings. Both in New York, Whirlaway would again spot several pounds to his younger and smaller rival. In the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Whirlaway would earn an important victory over Alsab. The win would help the Calumet star earn his second consecutive Horse of the Year, despite losing to Alsab again in their third meeting, the New York Handicap. Meanwhile, Alsab undoubtedly passed his rival, Shut Out, in the race for the three-year-old championship with his three excellent performances against Whirlaway.
They have long since left this world, Whirlaway in 1953, and Alsab ten years later, and in fact, it’s been more than 33 years since Narragansett Park hosted horse racing, but for just over one minute and fifty-six seconds, together they put on a show that should never be forgotten.
To see a video of the great match race, click here.
The photo was captured from this video.