In the early California dawn just one month ago a golden chestnut 3-year-old colt with the unglamorous name of Swaps showed up for a workout at Hollywood Park. Trainers and clockers knew the colt well. In mid-February they had watched him win the Santa Anita Derby (SI, Feb. 28). They knew his owner-trainer combination of Rex Ellsworth and Meshach Tenney as a methodical team of hardworking, practicing Mormons who had gone into thoroughbred racing on a strictly business basis—and a business conducted in deadly seriousness around the California race tracks and on Ellsworth's two ranches, where the uniform of the day is a pair of blue Levis, checked shirts and cowboy boots and hats. The little band of professionals at Hollywood Park remembered, too, what Ellsworth had said after Swaps's Santa Anita Derby victory. Even as some banner headlines were proclaiming to Los Angeles readers: "Next stop—Kentucky," Ellsworth replied with caution, "We wouldn't want to let down the class of California racing by entering a possible also-ran."
Swaps, too, had to show he deserved the trip. When he finished his one-mile workout at Hollywood Park, he had earned his ticket. The slowest time any of the clockers had caught him was a brilliant 1:36 1/5. One watch showed a dazzling 1:35 4/5. A trainer turned to a companion and said aloud what Ellsworth and Tenney must have been thinking: "I don't know much about Summer Tan and Nashua except what I have read, but the way this colt is training it looks like they have him to beat." By the time this remark reached the backstretch at Belmont Park and Aqueduct it was taken with pretty much the usual aloofness which awaits most boastful comments that annually float eastward across the Rockies when Kentucky Derby time approaches. The Easterners were to see Nashua and Summer Tan in the Wood Memorial. That would be enough. As far as they were concerned, Swaps—and any other horses, for that matter—could come to Louisville if he wanted to. But others would be shooting for show money. The ownership of the big purse was, purely and simply, going to be settled in another personal duel between Nashua and Summer Tan. And besides, there it was in the record book—a jinx in print for all to see: California-bred horses just can't win the Kentucky Derby. One did in 1922. Others have tried valiantly since. All failed.
THE ARIZONA PHILOSOPHY
And so the rivals—10 in all—descended on the rambling acreage of Churchill Downs. Nashua and Summer Tan came in style to be greeted by hordes of newspapermen who recorded their every move, hour by hour, day by day. They were ushered into the same barn, stared out at one another with expressionless faces and graciously took turns holding court for an audience whose numbers ran well into the thousands. Ellsworth and Tenney, following the very nature of men who have lived hard but simple lives, took their invasion of Louisville with a typically different approach. True, the air age had reduced the impracticalities of long-distance traveling for race horses. But why hurry? Why take chances? Into a railroad car went Swaps with his handlers and Tenney. Upon debarkation, Swaps drew the usual Derby notice for a day or so. But not many people went out of their way to examine him closely when the real stars were in the next barn. Those who took the trouble to investigate the goings-on in Barn 10, however, discovered much to intrigue them. Tenney pitched in to work on his California horse like an inspired man. His approach to training is what he calls the Arizona method—or, as he explained it to one reporter: "You have heard a lot about our training methods as not pampering our horses. I say just the opposite; we don't annoy them. I do not believe the horse likes to do the work required of him by man but would rather be in his natural state, eating a lot and leading his own life. Therefore the training of a horse to conform to man's ways should approximate the nature of the horse as much as possible. A horse is treated as a horse, with affection, to be sure, but without what Arizonans consider a lot of nonsense added." Tenney saw to it that Swaps was free from annoyance at Louisville. At night, instead of packing off to a hotel, he'd doff his sombrero and spread his bedroll in Swaps's stall—sleeping with one eye open.
May 16, 1955
A week before the Derby, Swaps was ready for his first race since Santa Anita. Tenney carefully equipped him with a specially improvised shoe, made of leather, to cover the bottom of one slightly injured foot and sent him out under Jockey Willie Shoemaker for a six-furlong freshener. He won by more than eight lengths in the blazing time of 1:10 1/5. Three days later Willie the Shoe, this time out on another California horse—Jean's Joe—was beaten by a nose in the Derby Trial by Conn McCreary on Flying Fury. Back in the showers Willie gave McCreary some advance warning: "You'll never beat my Derby horse."
On Derby Day, Swaps was led slowly to the paddock, but even his good manners did not prevent him from stealing a quick, hopeful glance at the winners' circle, where two attendants were unpacking a wreath of roses. Into the betting machines the crowd of some 100,000 poured a record $1,677,178. As expected, the mutuels made Nashua the favorite, although not odds-on. Eddie Arcaro, ready again to ride Nashua following a suspension, looked over the field and said, "I don't see how they could make any horse odds-on in this race. There's too many good ones. I don't think we'll have as much trouble from Summer Tan as from Swaps. He's the horse to beat." Many of the crowd agreed, and by post time the chestnut from California was second choice. As the select 10 went through their parade to the starting gate the sky grew gray and dark. A series of violent thunderclaps set the audience to gazing skyward—only to be greeted by the sight of jagged streaks of lightning and the dampness of the day's first rain. Nashua and a few others reacted with a slight nervous tug. Swaps walked along calmly.
From the start—or after the field had started on the long first run by the stands—Swaps took command. "He's going to try and steal the race, kill 'em off in the first mile," said an expert.
"He may try to steal it," interrupted another as Swaps led the way into the clubhouse turn, "but Arcaro'll never let him get away with it. Look at Nashua—laying third and ready to move when Eddie gives the word."
THE CHAMPION FALTERS
Up the backstretch they thundered, Swaps showing the way, Nashua and Summer Tan within striking distance. "There he goes," went the roar as Arcaro went to the whip at the five-sixteenths pole. Nashua responded like magic. In long, beautiful strides he began overhauling Swaps. Eric Guerin tried the same move with Summer Tan but, as he later said, "When I tried to move with Nashua my horse just died." So, rounding into the stretch the real duel began—the duel between the champion from New York and the invader from California. For a moment as Swaps turned for home he shied slightly at the nearby gate ("like he was set to prop," said Shoemaker), but Willie hit him a couple of times and he straightened out. Nashua was still crawling up, coming in giant strides towards the sea of noise made by people who knew—and had seen—what a champion can do when he has to. For scant seconds, then, the two were almost even, nearly head and head. Willie went to the whip five or six times and Swaps pulled away. Arcaro, too, used his stick in frantic desperation. The wire was coming up on them. Nashua must move now. Now or never. But this day, this gray, dark and briefly rainy afternoon, Nashua either did not want to run or could not run faster. Swaps kept going smoothly and easily. He ran under the wire a length and a half to the good of Nashua after covering a mile and a quarter in 2:01 4/5—only two-fifths of a second away from the great Whirlaway's record. Nashua had proved one point: he was clearly a better race horse than Summer Tan (who finished six and a half lengths back in third place). But Swaps (who earned $108,400, 10% of which is slated for the Mormon Church) had proved several points: California-bred horses are ready to make a serious run at the supremacy enjoyed by the proud state of Kentucky—and one of them, Swaps, may be the best 3-year-old in the land this year. Trying to prove this superiority may be somewhat difficult for the Ellsworth-Tenney team, however, for Swaps, nominated for neither the Preakness nor the Belmont, is probably going to do most of his 1955 campaigning back on home California soil.
Long after Swaps and Nashua had returned to their adjoining barns, Shoemaker and Arcaro were still talking about their race. Arcaro struck his hands together in a glancing clap. "And Swoosh went Swaps!" he said. Said Willie after his first Derby win: "This horse gets better every time he runs." Arcaro greeted Nashua's owner, William Woodward, with a smile and said, "Hey, boss, what are we going to do with that horse?"
Woodward looked down at his rider and said, "We had no excuse, Eddie. I think he was beaten by a better horse today."
Arcaro: "Yep, Swaps was better—today."
Woodward: "But I want to get another shot at that colt."
Arcaro: "Me too."