05/17/2005 11:00PM

Living history in 'Whirlaway'

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Bud Greenspan is best known for his films of the Olympics, but now he has turned his attention to a new documentary about 1941 Triple Crown winner Whirlaway, and with good results.

There is priceless footage of Ben Jones hard at work, training the difficult colt they called Mr. Longtail. There are rare and cherished glimpses of Whirlaway behind the scenes, including the dramatic use of a color film archive that nearly blinds the eye with its intensity. And there is ample use of a 1997 interview with the late Eddie Arcaro, Whirlaway's rider through that memorable Triple Crown.

Viewers will come away with the unavoidable impression that Whirlaway was a great horse with a story no less compelling than that of Seabiscuit or Secretariat. His Triple Crown was spectacular, including a Preakness that can still send chills through the hardest racing heart. His march through 1942 as a bona fide war horse, hustling government bonds along the way, included 22 races in eight months at a dozen different tracks, and a record of 12-8-2. Go ahead, try that today.

To tell the story, Greenspan assembled a literate cast of historians and firsthand witnesses, including Tom Gilcoyne of the National Racing Museum, the peerless chronicler Bill Nack, and jockeys Dave Erb and Bernie Nash, who lend an earthy reality to events of more than 60 years ago.

The most welcome face among them, though, belongs to MacKenzie Miller, the Hall of Fame trainer who can testify without hesitation to the unique Ben Jones style of training. Although briefly used, Miller adds authority to Greenspan's panorama, even though world events prevented Miller from being present for Whirlaway's Triple Crown run.

In the spring of 1941, the 20-year-old Miller was otherwise occupied in Florida as a senior in a Jacksonville military school when Whirlaway raged through the Triple Crown. Soon after, Miller was off to war. He did not commence his racing career until the Army Air Corps was done with his services.

"I had a roommate from Georgetown, Kentucky," Miller recalled. "One of the most delightful men I've ever known. And we both loved horses. There was a picture of Whirlaway working, printed in the local Jacksonville paper, and his tail was absolutely horizontal to the ground. A wonderful shot. We cut the picture out and put it on our lamp shade.

"Now, my roommate was a quiet fellow," Miller went on. "But around nine o'clock that evening, in the light of that glowing lamp, he looked over at me and said, 'You know, any sonofabitch who doesn't like a horse is just crazy!' "

Whirlaway stirred such emotions, and Miller could hardly disagree. After the war, he went to work for Calumet Farm, Whirlaway's birthplace, then took out his trainer's license in 1949. By then, Miller was fully versed on the impact of the Jones mystique.

"Ben Jones had the best-looking horses that Mack Miller's ever seen," Miller said. "They were big and strong, with high flesh and great coats of hair. He was funny guy, though. You know, he would never draw a horse on race day. We'd always take the hay net out around noon. When Ben left the barn, the hay net was still hanging."

In 1993, Miller joined Jones in the ranks of Derby-winning trainers when Sea Hero, owned by Paul Mellon, scored at Churchill Downs by 2 1/2 lengths.

"That was the greatest joy of my life, winning the Derby," Miller said. "Sea Hero was not a very strong horse. And he was a cribber - had a lot of nerve problems. I felt so lucky when it was over because I'd won it, and I knew it would be my last chance."

It was. Miller retired from training in 1995, after a 46-year career that featured champions Leallah, Hawaii, Assagai, and Snow Knight, along with major stakes performers Fit to Fight, Java Gold, Winter's Tale, Tentam, Red Ransom, and Hero's Honor.

Miller also made the obligatory run at the '93 Preakness with Sea Hero, but if ever there was a horse unsuited to run back in two weeks, it was that fidgety son of Polish Navy. Still, as a Kentucky boy from Versailles, Miller was not about to buck tradition. Sea Hero survived his fifth-place Preakness finish and a subsequent seventh in the Belmont, then was back on his game that summer to win the Travers Stakes at Saratoga.

Whirlaway, as depicted in Greenspan's film, was made of sterner stuff, running hard and often. The 1941 Preakness was the 25th start of Whirlaway's career and was certainly his most spectacular. After missing the break and dropping "10 lengths behind the last horse," in Arcaro's estimation, he launched a remarkable run on the far turn. Within a quarter of a mile he was in front and drawing away, eventually winning by 5 1/2 lengths.

Miller spent several days in the University of Kentucky Hospital this week undergoing tests for high blood pressure. Now 83, he had a tough winter with a bout of pneumonia. He will be spending Preakness Day at home in Versailles with his wife, Martha, and hopes to catch the Whirlaway documentary as well, either on Saturday at 11 a.m. Eastern on ESPN Classic, or 3 p.m. Eastern on Friday.

On camera in "Bud Greenspan Presents: Whirlaway," Miller observes that Whirlaway was a nervous, erratic horse and notes, "I don't think anyone other than Ben Jones could have trained him."

He is probably right, although Mack Miller would have given it a pretty good try.