Monday, April 15, 2013

Mr. Longtail

It's always interesting to go into the garage at an estate sale.  There, you find different kinds of things than those that are stored in the house:  Tools, magazines, old newspaper clippings, large bins of Christmas decorations, fishing rods, camping equipment.

At a recent estate sale I went into the garage and found a carefully-folded-and-saved page from the December 14, 1941 Los Angeles Times

At the top of the page it says "Rotogravure Section." 
That stopped me in my tracks; how often do you hear that word nowadays?  Mostly when you hear Fred Astaire singing the title song to "Easter Parade" on Turner Classic Movies. Irving Berlin's song contains the line, "The photographers will snap us, and you'll find that you're in the rotogravure."

Even though it's an old-fashioned sounding word, the process is still in use today. Rotogravure printing is a "photomechanical process by which pictures, typeset matter, etc., are printed from an intaglio copper cylinder."  The images are engraved onto the copper.  In the 1930s through 1960s, newspapers published relatively few photographs; instead, many papers published separate rotogravure feature photo sections in their Sunday editions.  A 1932 Gallup organization survey showed that newspaper readers paid more attention to the rotogravure section of the paper, and ads in that section were three times more likely to be seen than in other parts of that edition.

So whose star power was big enough, just at the start of World War II, to qualify for a full-page rotogravure spread in the LA Times?  A smallish horse with a big heart and a long tail, called Whirlaway. 

"Whirly," as the newspaper captions call him (after the first reference using his full name), had already made history as the 1941 Triple Crown winner.  ESPN commentator Bill Finley gives us a summary of why America was captivated by Whirlaway by describing his performance in the 1941 Preakness Stakes:

He walked out of the gate and was soon so far behind that he was nowhere to be found on the screen as the leaders moved down the backstretch. Suddenly, he jumps into the picture and starts running by horses so fast that it looks like one of those poorly choreographed races they do in movies, where a horse is running so rapidly it makes the competitors look as if they are standing still. He passed the entire field in a matter of maybe a quarter-mile and then gallops through the stretch all by himself.

In the magazine The Blood-Horse, writer Joe Palmer summarized:

"He carries in his armament the deadliest weapon a thoroughbred can have - an annihilating burst of speed which he can apparently turn on at any stage of a race."

In December 1941, Whirlaway, nicknamed "Mr. Longtail" and "The Flying Tail," had arrived at Santa Anita racetrack to gear up for the 1942 racing season, including the famous Santa Anita Handicap. 

Like many celebrities then and now, Whirlaway was known as a bit of a rogue, difficult to control if anything in his daily routine changed.  The pictures in the rotogravure section show him in a variety of poses, just like any other star -- waking up, posing for a formal portrait, working out, cooling off, heading back to his stall.  The captions note that Whirlaway went to bed at 6 p.m. (making him different than most celebrities).

Alas for racing fans, the advent of the war canceled racing at Santa Anita for two seasons, so Whirlaway never ran there.  Santa Anita became an internment camp for Japanese Americans. 

I think the Times was correct in giving Whirlaway a full-page spread.  He was voted Horse of the Year in 1941 and 1942.  Whirlaway ran 60 times, at 17 tracks, before he was retired in 1943. He ran in many races to benefit the Emergency Relief Fund during World War II, those appearances netting an estimated $5 million in war bond sales. Finley observes, "That only added to his stature as a national hero."

I wonder why the family who had the estate sale had saved this crumbling page of newsprint? Perhaps the father, or a child, had hoped to go to Santa Anita in 1942 and watch Mr. Longtail fly past the competition.

Here is a video recap of Whirlaway's racing career, showing some examples of his explosive stretch run kick:

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