The Southern California sky was cloudless, the temperature was in the balmy 60s, and a benign sun shone down on the palm-girdled oval of the Santa Anita race track. In the stands 49,000 people watched in absorbed concentration as the 14 3-year-olds paraded to the post for the seventh race. For the seventh at Santa Anita last Saturday was more than just another horse race: it was the $100,000 Santa Anita Derby, the first of 1955's series of classic tests of 3-year-old horseflesh.
May's Kentucky Derby and Preakness, June's Belmont Stakes still lie weeks ahead. But—between then and now—horsemen and racing fans everywhere will be sitting in judgment on a whole new generation of glistening bays, browns, grays and chestnuts. At Santa Anita last week the 49,000 were out to watch the youngsters measure each other for purpose and heart.
As the horses moved to the starting gate the crowd scanned their favorites: the Calumet Farms' colt Trentonian, sired by the great Bull Lea and affectionately tagged by Calumet trainer Jimmy Jones, "an honest little fella"; the powerful but willful Blue Ruler, owned by the wives of Texas Millionaires Clint Murchison and Woffort Cain; and Blue Ruler's talented stablemate Jean's Joe.
But, California being California, most of the 49,000 had a special affection for a golden chestnut with the unprepossessing name of Swaps. California Owner Rex Ellsworth not only maintains his stables at the Ellsworth Ranch in California but Swaps himself is California-bred and trained. You have to delve back to 1922—and the great brown Morvich—to find a California-bred horse that ever won the Kentucky Derby. Californians devotedly watch for signs and portents of another.
When the Santa Anita Derby was over last Saturday, it was Swaps in the winner's circle, and Californians had a gleam in the eye.
Swaps was second choice in the betting and was supposed to be a shade inferior in natural talent to the Murcain Stable's Blue Ruler. But Blue Ruler finished a rather dismal third, thanks to the fact that he has trouble keeping his mind on his work and appeared to think the whole thing a proper lark. Swaps, on the other hand, seems to be as heartily conscientious about his work as his owner Rex Ellsworth and his trainer Meshach Tenney, who are devout Mormons both. Swaps allowed himself no folderol. His mind was on business all the way.
Surprisingly, after the race, Trainer Tenney and Owner Ellsworth gravely allowed that Swaps owed his success altogether to the good life and holding the good thought. Bequeath, a 3-year-old stablemate of Swaps which ran far down the track (fifth), is really much better when the devil isn't in him, they said. Unfortunately, it is in him most of the time and Tenney confided: "Bequeath outruns Swaps, and if he had Swaps's willingness and ambition he would be a great horse. But he isn't as good-natured."
Blue Ruler is good-natured enough—till he gets on the track. Then he appears to regard the jockey as an unnecessary annoyance on an otherwise perfect afternoon for an outing, like a governess at a dance, something to give the slip to. Even the great Willie Shoemaker couldn't keep his horse's mind on the main chance and confessed sadly after the race, "I had a helluva time. He ran all over the place. He was awful green, he was awful green. At the three-eighth pole he was trying to duck in behind horses." Next to jumping shadows, playing hide-and-go-seek with the rest of the field is probably the racing technique least likely to succeed. Railbirds think Blue Ruler, which has raced only twice since last September, is pampered too much.
Blue Ruler, of course, may mend his ways. There may be nothing wrong with him that hard knocks in competition with a few four-footed Dead End kids won't cure. Last year's Santa Anita Derby winner, Determine, which went on to win the Kentucky Derby, was no such pampered darling and had already had enough racing for the year by the time he won the Santa Anita 3-year-old classic. But Determine, owned by an automobile dealer of modest circumstances as far as horse owners go, was running for the rent. Blue Ruler doesn't really need the money and his swollen-walleted owners picked him up at the same time they picked up a few other valuable pieces of bric-a-brac, such as the New York Central Railroad.
Swaps was not born with a silver bit in his mouth. Rex Ellsworth was a working Arizona cowboy who was in the saddle 16 hours a day when he started his stable with a 50-dollar mare he wasn't sure he wanted. This is the first $100,000 race he has won.
Where Blue Ruler's sire is international royalty, the great Aga Khan Irish stud, Nasrullah, Swaps's is the hard-working Khaled. Nasrullah may have sired bluer bloods but Khaled sired the most winners of anybody last year, 65 winners of 156 races, earning $427,736. Like his son, Khaled keeps his mind on business.
Before the race, Trainer Tenney had a few guarded words of instruction for Jockey Johnny Longden: "I'm not gonna tell you how to ride a horse, Johnny, but I will tell you two things: lay behind the early pace as long as you want to, and when the time comes he wants to run, let him run, and keep him running."
The time came at the far turn. Swaps was running a leisurely third behind a colt named Right Down and his black-sheep stablemate, Bequeath. Blue Ruler was a floundering sixth at the time, trying to get Jockey Shoemaker to quit bothering him. Swaps barreled ahead and was in front by three lengths at the far turn. It was then that Blue Ruler's overlooked stablemate, another Nasrullah colt, Jean's Joe, decided it was up to him. He made a run at the leader Swaps and, thanks to an adroit ride by Jockey Eddie Arcaro who swivel-hipped him through the entire field, he was a well-placed second by two lengths in the stretch.
Swaps came into the turn like a scat halfback—way wide but fast. Jean's Joe almost hooked up with him but they swept down the stretch and across the finish line like an amateur-night dance team—never entirely in step. Swaps scrambled across an all-important half-length in front.
California was determined not to throw hats in the air—too many California-breds have failed in the Kentucky Derby—but the gleam in the eye was there. The Los Angeles Times ran the news on page one and proudly underlined the happy truth: "The winner...is strictly a California product." The Los Angeles Examiner came right out and said it: "Next stop—Kentucky."
The United Press appraiser was quick to draw a comparison between Swaps and another onetime hero of the West—the California-bred Your Host. But this was an awkward memory, for after Your Host led the 1950 Kentucky Derby field through a record-breaking first mile, he slowed down sufficiently in the last quarter to allow eight other horses, led by a Texas character named Middleground, to blaze by and beat him to the wire.
Owner Ellsworth and Trainer Tenney issued a cautious tut-tut. Kentucky? Yes—provided Swaps continues to come along in the right fashion. "They are committed in their own mind," reported the Los Angeles Mirror, "not to let down the class of California racing by entering a possible 'also ran.' " Rex Ellsworth and the rest of California have not quite forgotten Your Host.
OWNER REX ELLSWORTH
The owner of Santa Anita Derby winner Swaps has acquired, since the days when he worked as a $50-a-week cowhand on his father's Safford, Ariz. ranch, both a thorough knowledge of breeding and a phenomenal eye for good conformation. These assets make Rex Ellsworth, 46, today's most successful California breeder.
Ellsworth started the climb up in 1933 with a round trip to the Lexington, Ky. sales in a rented truck and $600, which went for six mares and two weanlings. After the war he went abroad with an eye to buying the stallion Nasrullah, settled finally on the Aga Khan's Khaled, a son of Hyperion, for a reported $60,000. Since then Khaled has sired winners of $1,666,000, including, besides Swaps, the West Coast star Correspondent (total winnings: $202,167). If Ellsworth leaves his Ontario, Calif, ranch to bring Swaps to this year's Kentucky Derby he will bring with him a relaxed manner and a set of quiet habits. Should Swaps win the big race, Ellsworth will leave the mint julep celebrating to the accompanying Californians. He doesn't drink.