As horse races go, the $57,750 Westerner at Hollywood Park last Saturday wasn't much. The 45,544 who showed up at the sun-bathed, pond-bedecked race track were there for the same reason tourists are at Niagara Falls—to see a wonder of nature. In this case it was a red-gold, 3-year-old race horse, Swaps, who can run faster and farther than any California-bred horse and whom Californians are beginning to brag about out loud as one of the all-time runners of the American turf.
When the great colt walked on the track, the announcer chastely introduced him merely as the Kentucky Derby winner. But when the race was over, Hal Moore was as recklessly superlative as other Californians. "Ladies and gentlemen, in the winner's circle, Swaps, California's candidate for Horse-of-the-Year, the incomparable Swaps!" In the press box veteran turf-writers were of a mood to hurl their adjectives even higher in the air.
"Horse-of-the-Year! Hell, he's the horse of 25 years—maybe more." Even the more cautious, like the Los Angeles Examiner's Maurice Bernard, found themselves shaking their heads to marvel: "Did you ever see anything like that?"
Few Californians could say they had. When the bell rang and sent the horses stampeding out of the gate, Swaps even did that better than his opposition. The horses struggling in his wake never could seriously press him. "He tried to run, but I never did let him go," Jockey Willie Shoemaker confessed.
July 17, 1955
In spite of Shoemaker's restraining hands, Swaps won by six lengths. His time, 2:00 3/5, was only four-fifths of a second off Noor's track record. He ran the first mile in track record-tying time of 1:34 4/5. Second at the final was the overmatched claimer, Fabulous Vegas, but third was Jean's Joe, a Nasrullah colt once considered serious opposition for Swaps, who chased Swaps to the wire in the Santa Anita Derby. Of the $192,093 bet on the race Saturday, all but $35,059 was bet on Swaps.
Around Hollywood Park they are no longer asking whether Swaps is better than Nashua—it's whether he's as good as Man o' War. But the race was more than just a triumph for Swaps. It was further convincing proof that a pair of Arizona cowboys have not only crashed the select circle of championship horse breeders, they have temporarily taken it over.
Thoroughbred breeding has been thought to be pretty much the domain of the big rich—the Aga Khans, the Klebergs, the Alfred Vanderbilts. Never, outside of a Hollywood horse opera, has an unlikelier character than Rex C. Ellsworth come forward to beat the well-heeled at their own costly game. Not a reckless man and one you would never accuse of gambling, Ellsworth nevertheless seemed in the view of many to be throwing his last precious blue chips in the pot when he went to England in 1948 and bought Swaps's sire, Khaled, from the Aga Khan for $160,000.
The point was, Ellsworth and his trainer, Meshach Adams Tenney, a slender, patient little man who had been foreman of the Ellsworth family ranch in Arizona, felt they knew the secret of championship breeding. All they lacked was superior bloodlines.
At first glance the Ellsworth-Tenney ranch at Chino, 50 miles on the desert side of Los Angeles, seems hardly the place to raise Horses-of-the-Year, or even thoroughbreds. It looks more like a stockyard than a blueblood breeding ground. Its 300 acres are cut up into 32 long, narrow pens—each 756 feet long by 132 feet wide and each encased not in white wood but iron wire. Ellsworth engineered his farm so that one of his cowboys could get a horse from any part of the complex in one continuous ride and lead him up a system of areaways directly to the ranch's one loading ramp without having to open a gate. "We don't have to send the cavalry out to round up horses here," says Ellsworth, a laconic man who talks even less than Tenney (see p. 58). "One cowboy can load a van full in a short time."
There isn't a tree in sight, and the breaking corral and the areaways don't even have any grass. The lack of verdure distresses Ellsworth not at all. "I have raised horses in a corral without one blade of grass—and I have come to California and broken track records and won money with them," he says.
The mighty stud, Khaled, probably the world's most valuable piece of horseflesh, with services going for a whooping $5,000 per and all booked up, lives in a virtual sandpit about the size of a subway platform on the old Ellsworth 60-acre ranch five miles from the Chino establishment. One end is walled in by his plaster-walled barn with holes in it. On the other end is a wire fence over which can frequently be seen hanging the ranch hands' wet wash. To Khaled it makes no difference, but the effect on the outsider is one of finding the Koh-inoor diamond resting in a dirty shot glass.
Ellsworth built his ranch for efficiency and not for show. A lifetime around horses has taught both Tenney and Ellsworth that horses are what they are—dumb animals, amongst the dumbest, in fact—and the successful breeder is one who protects himself from them and them from each other. The wire fences are skillfully woven into a series of rectangles, for example, which has the effect of preventing the horses from pushing their hoofs through. Ellsworth feels that more great racing careers have been stopped by inadequate wood fences than by lack of shade trees. The areaways between the pasture pens are adroitly placed to keep horses from biting each other over the fences.
Where wood is needed as a stout barricade—in the stalls and in the breaking and training corral—Ellsworth has devised the hang-the-expense idea of laying two-by-fours flat atop each other. This provides substantial protection and at the same time enough "give" to prevent the thoroughbreds from damaging themselves.
For a horse, in the view of Ellsworth, feed is far more important than environment and here he has splurged a quarter of a million dollars on an elaborate, electronically controlled feeding device which mixes master batches of minutely prescribed feed as carefully as a hospital dietician brews up maternity ward formulas. The complex control panel, which looks fully capable of regulating a blast furnace, turns out carefully worked-out potions of molasses, Norwegian kelp, vermifuge and rolled oats. The kelp, which is cut off the coast of Norway, boasts of "60 different trace minerals and vitamins, among which are calcium, chlorine, iron, iodine, potassium, nitrogen, phosphorous and sulphur." Each horse gets a daily ration of 12 quarts. In all, the Ellsworth string includes 180 horses, 31 presently stabled at Hollywood Park, four studs, 65 mares, 40 yearlings and 40 foals at the ranch. Ellsworth feels the mixture is responsible for not only the glistening coats but also the finish-line spring on his horses, and—in the case of Khaled and Roman In—the glint in their eyes.
Ellsworth, who lives in a passionate-pink house less than half a furlong from the barn (he can get to the horses as quickly as a suburbanite can get to his station wagon), works night and day on the ranch. His meager staff of highly dependable, God-fearing hands live in Ellsworth-provided homes right next door to the boss, and Ellsworth expects them to work as hard as he does. Hands, Ellsworth and Tenney share a liking for horses. Most are Mormons, as is Ellsworth, who as a young man was a missionary in South Africa. Tenney served the Mormons at about the same time in the Denver area.
Ellsworth and Tenney are Rex and Mish to all ranch hands, from their longtime ranch foreman, Simon (Hop) Chavarria, to the stoop laborers picking stones from the floors of the horse pens. Only on Saturdays, when he has an appointment in the winner's circle, does Ellsworth shake the sand out of his boots, grab his best suit and a pair of binoculars and drive his green Cadillac to the race track. He usually waits for the big race not in his private box but at stall No. 18 where the adoring grooms get the new big red ready for the day's business.
Swaps is pampered no more than the hard-working cow ponies. Where other stables usually wash down their prize colts after morning works, Swaps gets only the equivalent of a Saturday-night bath, like any other youngster raised on a ranch.
What Ellsworth, Tenney and Swaps have done primarily, in the conviction of many a long-suffering California and Wild West turf expert, is give ringing lie to the canard that no really great horse can come from the semiarid West. It may take businesslike methods to prove the point, they concede, but a horse doesn't have to dine in Eastern vineyards to be a great runner.
Nashua? Well, what of him? argue Californians. Can Swaps beat him? He did, didn't he?