Siding with Swaps

By Morton Cathro

Author Laura Hillenbrand's vivid description of the celebrated 1938 match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral in her best-selling Seabiscuit: An American Legend stirred my recollection of that other epic Turf duel which, like its predecessor, pitted East versus West, aristocrat versus cow-puncher, and ignited a lasting debate.

Date: Aug. 31, 1955. Track: Washington Park, Chicago. Distance: 1 1/4 miles. Weights: 126 pounds. Purse: $100,000, winner take all. Post position 1: Nashua, owned by William Woodward Jr., dashing Wall Street financier, master of Belair Stud, employer of legendary trainer James (Sunny Jim) Fitzsimmons. Post position 2: Swaps, owned, bred, broken, trained, fed, groomed, and shod by cattle ranchers Rex Ellsworth and Meshach Tenney of Safford, Ariz., and Chino, Calif.

Now, as Hollywood Park prepares to honor the greatest of all Cal-breds (Morvich, Best Pal, and Tiznow notwithstanding) with the 28th running of the $500,000 Swaps Stakes (gr. I) on July 15, a fresh look at the controversial duel and its aftermath seems apropos.

Nashua and Eddie Arcaro had been upset by Swaps and Willie Shoemaker in the '55 Kentucky Derby, and fans clamored for a rematch. It was, as described by Daily Racing Form columnist Evan Shipman, no contest. "As the doors opened, Arcaro, yelling like a banshee and wielding his whip with all his strength, shot Nashua to the front, while Swaps, away on the outside, veered farther out toward the outside rail. Nashua was in front when they passed the stand, and he was to be in front for the entire distance, Swaps making repeated thrusts at him, all of them falling short."

The equine gladiators had hardly cooled out before their connections and the press climbed into the arena. A jubilant Arcaro (who had adopted the riding strategy of George Woolf on Seabiscuit 17 years earlier) found the result "a great satisfaction." Fitzsimmons called it "the greatest race we ever had in this country." When Ellsworth said Swaps wasn't himself, Shipman accused him of making excuses.

A few years ago, reminiscing with Shoemaker, I asked, "Was Swaps sound the day he got beat?" "No!" came the explosive answer from the normally placid jockey. "He had that foot infection again. They (Ellsworth and Tenney) didn't tell me 'cause they knew I'd pull him up. I guess they ran him anyway on account of all the (advance) publicity."

Joe Hirsch corroborates Shoemaker's story in another recently published book, Champions: The Lives, Times, and Past Performances of the 20th Century's Greatest Thoroughbreds. Moreover, far from being poor sports, it appears Swaps' connections were just the opposite. Writes Hirsch: "When the foot problem recurred the week of the match race, Ellsworth and Tenney approached (Washington Park owner) Ben Lindheimer and requested a postponement. Lindheimer explained why this was impossible at such a late hour and an agreement was reached to keep quiet about the foot condition. Even Bill Shoemaker wasn't told, for fear the news might subconsciously affect his riding of Swaps."

As the East got even for the Derby loss and the beating War Admiral had taken from his western opponent (ridden by an ex-cowboy and trained by Silent Tom [The Plainsman] Smith), we in the West clicked off our newfangled TVs and licked our wounds. Nashua went on to become 1955 Horse of the Year; Swaps returned to California for surgery on his right fore prior to his own Horse of the Year campaign in 1956.

That spring and summer saw the front-running bronze chestnut display what Turf historian William H.P. Robertson later called "the most amazing exhibition of speed in history." Winning eight of 10 starts -- six while carrying 130 pounds -- Swaps set four world records and equaled a fifth at distances ranging from a mile to 1 5/8 miles. In 16 of his 19 lifetime victories (from 25 starts), he toyed with his opposition and coasted home under wraps.

Shoemaker, who rode such other greats as Dr. Fager, John Henry, Round Table, Gallant Man, Buckpasser, Damascus, and Spectacular Bid, said Swaps and 'Bid "might finish in a dead heat" as the best of his lifetime mounts.

Rex Ellsworth's son, Kim, who today operates a training center in Riverside, Calif., sums up the Swaps story: "There's no telling what he might have accomplished if he'd had four good feet."

Retired newspaperman Morton Cathro has followed racing since the 1930s. He resides in Moraga, Calif.