Swaps: Invader from the West

Excerpt from
Swaps: Thoroughbred Legends #14

By Barry Irwin

Chapter 5: Invader from the West
Swaps was no longer a gangly stripling. Stripped for action, he exuded power, especially around his deep girth, which showed considerable condition, without the hint of a rib. This was a heavyweight bout, and when Tenney took off Swaps' robe, he revealed a colt in breathtaking shape. The "left coast" challengers knew full well the responsibility they had in carrying the dreams and wishes of California owners, breeders, and fans.

Failed post-WWII invasions by well-fancied, highly publicized California-breds such as Your Host embarrassed Western racing professionals and dashed the hopes of Golden State racing fans of ever being able to beat Eastern bluebloods in the Run for the Roses again. (Although not a California-bred, Determine, the 1954 Kentucky Derby winner, was based in California.)

Hoping to end a thirty-three-year drought, Harry Geisen of Munster, Illinois, sent Tenney a rose from the garland that had been placed around the neck of Morvich in the winner's circle in 1922.
It was not with mock seriousness that Tenney had promised Geisen that he would let Swaps smell the faded rose before he sent Swaps over to the paddock.

Tenney was not normally a sentimental man. He did not rely on a good-luck talisman. He made his own luck. Rarely had there been a horse more schooled for his task at Churchill Downs than Swaps.

In the days before the Derby, Tenney saw to it that Swaps covered as much of the Churchill Downs grounds as possible to familiarize the colt with the sights and sounds of the layout.

Tenney kept a radio with the volume turned up high near the colt's stall to prepare him for the blaring call to the post and attendant singing of "My Old Kentucky Home."

One fear Tenney had about Swaps on the day of the Kentucky Derby was the positioning of the starting gate after the field had been dispatched.

"What I'm afraid of," Tenney said, "is that my horse will come around that final turn, see the starting gate tucked away in the corner, and mosey over to see what it is. What I'm gonna do is ask Tom Young, the track superintendent, to bring out the gate on the morning of Derby day. Then I'm gonna walk Swaps past it a couple of times so that he'll be used to seeing it there. He's so observant that he'd notice a spot on your coat."

The Westerners' confidence in their representative was tempered mightily by the knowledge that William Woodward Jr.'s Belair Stud colorbearer Nashua provided the stiffest possible barrier to their colt's becoming the first California-bred to win the Derby since Morvich.

When asked by Turf writers in the days leading to the Kentucky Derby how good a colt he thought Nashua was, Eddie Arcaro answered with a question -- "How can anybody tell?"

Nashua was so good in winning all four of his preps, including the Flamingo Stakes and Florida Derby, Arcaro himself could not gauge just how good he was.

The crop's champion colt at two, Nashua had his last Kentucky Derby prep in New York's Wood Memorial, in which he beat his long-time Eastern rival Summer Tan, who would enter the starting gate as the third choice for the Run for the Roses.

Nashua had lost only twice in eight starts at two. A big brute of a colt, Nashua gave the impression he had unlimited potential.

Summer Tan was a top colt in his own right. He had beaten Nashua in track-record time at two in the Cowdin Stakes at Aqueduct, but a serious illness in November had set him back considerably.

Professional horsemen familiar with both Nashua and Summer Tan considered Nashua primed for a top effort in the Kentucky Derby. On the other hand, they thought Summer Tan had not flourished over the winter and, although he had started to come around before the Wood, the strain of facing Nashua in that race actually set him back.

The first Saturday in May in 1955 began promisingly enough with sunny skies. As often happens as the day rolls on in the Ohio Valley, dark thunder clouds gathered, humidity increased noticeably, and the temperature rose. The thermometer hit eighty-five degrees.

The skies were foreboding enough for Tenney to call an audible on the line of scrimmage a few minutes before Swaps was scheduled to leave for the paddock.

Former track runner Tenney put some spikes on his colt's shoes to help him better grip the racing surface in case of an off track. A cannoning of thunder set the Derby runners to dancing after they were saddled. When the three-year-olds stepped onto the track and the band struck up "My Old Kentucky Home," all of the horses became highly animated, including Swaps. The Ellsworth colt settled down at once, though, indicating at least some of his schooling was paying dividends.

Size of the Derby field was small at ten runners, reflecting the prowess of Nashua. Swaps surprisingly opened as the favorite after the first day's betting, but by post time Nashua was the $1.30 to the dollar choice over Swaps at $2.80.

As the field paraded past the stands, bolts of lightning from the edge of a storm lit up the dark sky and unnerved the runners. The darkened skies and violent weather made the afternoon reminiscent of the climactic scene in John Taintor Foote's classic Kentucky racing story, "The Look of Eagles."

Reacting to one particularly vivid lightning strike, Nashua spun around, almost dropping Eddie Arcaro, who had to be assisted by a rider on a pony. A light drizzle, which began when the runners were being saddled, turned to a mist that did not appreciably alter the racing surface as the field entered the starting gate.

Before giving Shoemaker a leg up in the paddock, Tenney had told him to use his own judgment, but pointedly suggested it would be best to take Swaps off the pace.

When the gates opened, Nashua broke on top. Eddie Arcaro immediately held Nashua back, and Swaps, with Shoemaker tugging the reins, inherited the lead.

"I didn't try to steal this race," Shoemaker said. "I would have been content to get close up. But when none of the big horses showed any desire to set the pace, I quickly picked it up."

Arcaro did not mind that Shoemaker had taken the lead. Nashua's eighty-one-year-old trainer James "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons ("I don't ship well anymore") had told him on the telephone from New York to "cater to Summer Tan," Nashua's rival from the East.

Swaps was full of run and, under light rating from Shoemaker, was allowed to get away with a tepid first quarter in :23 3/5. Swaps took his field around the turn in :47 2/5 and continued easily to reach three-quarters on top in a moderate 1:12 2/5.

Only pressure applied to Swaps up to the half-mile pole came from 51-1 long shot Trim Destiny, the Arkansas Derby winner who offered a mild challenge a couple of times. The stage was now set for the race the 100,000 fans had come to see.

Nashua, tracking in third, and Summer Tan, just behind him in fourth, were perfectly poised to make their bids.

At this point, Shoemaker thought, "Well, if they just let me go a little farther like this, they'll never catch me."

Shoemaker got his wish. Arcaro waited another furlong to jack up Nashua for his run. Content that he had Summer Tan under control, Arcaro asked Nashua for a run with three-eighths to go and the tall, powerful son of Nasrullah responded by moving up on the outside to mount his challenge. Nashua cut the margin to a half-length at the quarter pole. Summer Tan was just a length back in third.

Acutely aware that the crux of the race was upon them, writers fell silent in the press box. The only sound was that of Daily Racing Form trackman Don Fair calling out the positions as the runners hit the quarter pole at the top of the long homestretch.

Swaps raced relaxed to that point with his ears pricked. "But just at the quarter pole, those ears flattened," Shoemaker said, "and in a flash I caught the picture. He had seen the starting gate. It scared him and he was ready to prop -- I felt sure of it.

"So I gave him the hardest belt I could muster, and he picked up his speed, pricked his ears again, and we were off in the nick of time."
Nashua got up to the middle of Swaps' body and remained lapped on his rival from the quarter pole until just past the furlong pole. "I knew they were coming," Shoemaker said. "I guess I could've reached out and touched his nose. I went to the whip and Swaps started to pull away. I knew the first inch he gained on Nashua that the race was ours."

Swaps, still fresh after a modest mile in 1:37, had plenty left and spurted clear inside the final furlong to win by one and a half lengths.

"Swaps led Nashua by a length and a half at the end, but that margin does not truly represent the amazing clarity of Swaps' score," Evan Shipman wrote in his Daily Racing Form column. "In our eyes, the invader from the West was not only 'handy' at the Derby finish, but was also fresh and in shape to have gone on from there."

Shoemaker attributed the victory to his mount's being able to take advantage of a moderate pace and Arcaro's concentrating on Summer Tan, who wound up more than six lengths behind Nashua in third.

Much was made of Fitzsimmons' warning to Arcaro about Summer Tan, but before the race Arcaro told Sports Illustrated's Whitney Tower, "I don't think we'll have as much trouble from Summer Tan as from Swaps. He's the horse to beat."

Credit belonged in considerable measure to Shoemaker, who had given an early glimpse of what would become his two hallmarks, namely an ability to get the most out of a horse while bothering it the least and a knack of saving something for the stretch drive.

The authority with which Swaps won left no room for excuses. On the bare face of the result, the facts were impressive: the final half-mile in :49 2/5 was the fastest run in the eighty-one-year-old history of the classic, and the final time of 2:01 4/5 was only two-fifths of a second slower than Whirlaway's stakes standard.

Mesach Tenney rewarded himself that evening by switching his bunk for the first time in two weeks from the straw floor in the stall next to Swaps to the backseat of his car. When he got up the next morning, he would awake to a world that would never be the same for either himself or his boyhood chum Rex Ellsworth.

Read excerpt from Nashua: Thoroughbred Legends #8