Forty-eight hours before he won the race at Washington Park last week Nashua, the muscled-up bay challenger from the East, was led from Barn A around the infield's turf course to a position near the finish line which would—on the approaching Big Day—serve as a paddock in full view of all America.
By nature, Nashua is a very curious animal. As he walked before the stands in this unusual dress rehearsal for Wednesday's saddling procedure he stopped four times of his own accord. On each occasion, after a hasty survey of his surroundings, Nashua reared back like a frisky, unbroken yearling (see opposite page). Each time, of course, Groom Alfred Robertson got him back to earth but each time, as Robertson said, "He gave me the scare of my life. He was so full of it I thought he might go clear over backwards."
Hours afterward, with this unnerving public commotion dispensed with, Nashua's personal groom gave his thoughts another airing. "I'm glad he behaved the way he did out there. It shows one thing: he's not nervous, he's just on his toes. Look at him—he's as fit as hands can make him."
The hands that made him fit belonged to 81-year-old Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, the Belair Stud trainer, who spent the last days before the race shuffling back and forth between one end of Barn A and his living quarters at nearby Olympia Fields Country Club—sandwiching between trips a flood of radio and television appearances and more than one breakfast and luncheon press conference with newsmen on hand from California, New York, Florida and all stations along the way.
September 11, 1955
Some 21 stalls down the line from Nashua, the champion—so-called because he had decisively beaten Nashua in the Kentucky Derby—followed a similar routine for the final frantic days. Swaps and his owner-trainer combination of Rex Ellsworth and Meshach Tenney, together with an assortment of children and mascots (including a former Swaps rider from Hollywood named Margaret O'Brien), splashed through the mud of the stable area to make a TV show at 7 o'clock one morning. Following it, the entire group from California slogged through the mud again down to Mr. Fitz's command post. And, with Nashua looking sleepily out of his stall at cameras which he would have preferred to have aimed at him, the rival camps posed in a tidy semicircle around Ben Lindheimer, the racing director who had succeeded in bringing off the most exciting turf coup since the Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race in 1938.
Ben Lindheimer hugged everyone within reach and happily proclaimed: "What I like most about this match race—aside from the fact that tomorrow we are going to see the two finest 3-year-olds in the country—is the wonderful spirit of good sportsmanship displayed by owners, trainers and jockeys. All people concerned have told me they are ready. Their horses are pronounced fit and no matter what are the track conditions, both sides have publicly stated their horse able to run over any surface—thus assuring all the awaiting world of a truly run horse race."
It made a nice prelude for events to come and everybody smiled again for the cameras. Then they all went off to a press lunch where Ben Lindheimer said, in effect, the same thing again and once more the room was wreathed with expressions of complete good cheer.
Getting up from lunch, Nashua's owner, William Woodward, put out a long arm and grabbed one of his employees: George Edward Arcaro. "There's sure a lot of compliments floating around this place," said Woodward. "When do you think they'll stop?"
Eddie Arcaro looked up at the young master of Belair Stud and gave his reply. "Boss, they'll stop the minute the bell goes, that's for damn sure."
Eddie, as nearly always, was right. The minute the bell went at 5:18 the next afternoon he was no longer the sports-coated celebrity at a clubhouse luncheon. He was a fighting, bellowing cavalryman. Ahead of him lay a mile and a quarter of combat terrain. Beyond that lay a check for $100,000—a tenth of it for the winning jockey, not to mention a gold cup for the mantel back home at Rockville Centre, N.Y. But more important than all this was the prestige which Eddie Arcaro had built up as the foremost race rider of his generation, the smartest, the trickiest, the headiest—and the hungriest when the heavy green bills are waiting to be picked up in the winner's circle.
Under Arcaro at 5:18 last Wednesday was Nashua, about whom Mr. Fitz had said only minutes before, "If he can't do it today he'll never be able to." And beside this pair who were fighting to regain prestige for their Kentucky Derby loss was another treasure-hunting tandem. Swaps, the miracle horse from California, had overcome an early-winter injury to his right forefoot to topple world and track records with such amazing ease that his countrymen were already calling him the equal of Man o' War. Aboard Swaps was tiny, 95-pound Willie Shoemaker, already a legend west of the Rockies, already a respected rider destined—someday—for the greatness Arcaro enjoys today.
Before the two horses had paraded to the starting gate—where Nashua would enter the second stall and Swaps the fourth—both contestants saddled in the infield near the blinking tote board, which reflected from time to time the opinion of some 36,000 witnesses that if Swaps had beaten Nashua once he would surely do it a second time. As the bright sun cast its light on a paddock overloaded with newsmen, photographers, friends of the families—and the combatants themselves—the tension of the last few months started toward its climax. Nashua, sheltered from the surging mob by his lead pony, Francis, looked unworried, Swaps was more fidgety. He doesn't usually kick up a fuss while being saddled.
The jocks legged up, and a path to the main track was cleared. As each horse made his way to the battlefield the stands gave him a salute. The television people began picking up their gear and, almost unnoticed in the commotion, Woodward walked hurriedly to where Ellsworth was standing. "Mr. Ellsworth," he said, "I would like to wish you the very best of luck."
"That's very nice of you," replied Ellsworth, "and may I say the very same to you."
"All I hope," said Woodward, "is that both horses give their very best."
Rex Ellsworth shot a glance up the track where Swaps was now going quietly toward the gate and then made a final comment: "And so do I."
The great match race of the generation was—for all purposes of evaluation—over at the start. The old master, Arcaro, got the jump on the young master, Shoemaker, and never gave him a chance. The crowd (and most of the 100 or more visiting turf writers) expected Swaps to break on the lead, with Eddie tailing him until he was ready for one big decisive move. Eddie and the Belair Stud board of strategy figured their own plan: run from the jump and don't ease up until one horse cracks. "My orders," said Woodward, "were, 'Go to the front if possible—but forget the if possible.' "
Arcaro knew what the orders meant. With whip raised as the gate sprung, he lit into Nashua with the violence of a pneumatic drill. His openmouthed battle cry, screamed out into the ears of the gate crew with the violence of a banzai, drifted toward the stands as the wail of ohs and ahs blended for a few seconds with the sound of digging hoofs the first time around.
But Arcaro did more than break on top. He broke smartly. At Washington Park last Wednesday there were two good running surfaces on a track which both jockeys rated at least one second off. One good running strip led out from stall No. 3, the next true surface ran out from stall No. 5, and between the two lay an unfirm footing of mud. When Arcaro brought Nashua out he made immediately for the closer lane. Shoemaker made for it too but, after drawing close to Nashua for a split second, he was forced to draw to the outside for unobstructed running. That's where Arcaro wanted Shoemaker. That's where Arcaro kept Shoemaker. Into the clubhouse turn they went, Eddie staying wide and forcing Swaps even wider. Shoe made the first of three runs at Nashua, but Eddie was having none of it. Into the backstretch Willie tried again, but Nashua was running swiftly now, smoothly—the way he has run when he really wants to win. At the top of the backstretch, with the pair running still a length or less apart in one of the most stirring duels ever seen between two champions, Shoemaker gave it the final all-out try. When he did, Nashua drew out to a length-and-a-half margin, "When we came to the quarter pole," said Eddie, "I knew I had won."
"So did I know it," said Shoemaker, after bringing Swaps home six-and-a-half lengths behind the challenger.
"Man, you'd have to get an adding machine to count the number of times I hit my horse," cracked Arcaro as he slid off Nashua in the winner's circle. Then, running up to Mr. Fitz, he exclaimed, "Boss, you brought him up like split silk." Arcaro was followed to the outstretched Fitzsimmons hand by losing trainer Tenney, who said, quite simply, "Congratulations. I wish I could have won it but I'm very happy for you."
To most of the thousands at track-side and to millions watching on television, the result came with the shock of a chilling summer downpour from blue skies. Reported Si's James Murray from the Coast: "When the time was posted, Californians couldn't believe it. To be sure, the track appeared as soggy as a bride's first biscuit dough. But I would have bet Swaps could run faster than 2:04 1/5 through the Sargasso Sea—backwards. You have to conclude that it wasn't altogether the track that was not to Swaps's liking. Sadly, I have to conclude that he didn't like competition—Nashua and Arcaro's brand of competition. He just didn't seem to like the sensation of that other horse running ahead of him and full of run."
THE QUESTION OF THE FOOT
The Swaps camp did some sad thinking too. Talking to the press half ah hour afterward, Ellsworth, Tenney and Shoemaker agreed that Swaps had not run his true race. "Something may be wrong with him," said Ellsworth. The next day, after a sunup visit to Swaps's stable, Ellsworth announced what the something was: a recurrence of the old bruise injury to the hoof of the right forefoot. Swaps had run with his customary, specially fashioned saddle-leather cushion between hoof and shoe (SI, May 16), plus an adhesive covering to keep out dirt and moisture. On the morning of the race he had seemed frisky and unbeatable, but now, said Ellsworth, the colt was sore and would have to be taken out of competition till the bruise healed, conceivably a matter of weeks or months.
This was news in itself. It meant that whatever chance there might have been for Swaps and Nashua to meet again as 3-year-olds during the fall eastern season was now out the window. But it also roused a legion of Swaps's fans in the press and public to an eager reconsideration of the whole match race. If Swaps had come out of the race with a sore foot, it suddenly became all-important to decide when the foot began to bother him.
Ellsworth and Tenney themselves joined the speculation. The injury, they thought, might very well have come in the first few strides out of the starting gate, when Swaps tried and failed to win the rail position from Nashua. Later in the race, Ellsworth said, "he made three tries trying to run, but it was stinging him so bad." To a circle of watchers from the press, Ellsworth and Tenney pointed out a tender spot on the sole of Swaps's hoof suggesting a small area of inflammation in the pulpy interior.
For a day or two reconsiderations spread, taking on an edge of rancor. Columnists of racing's bible, The Morning Telegraph, chose up sides. One of them, California-based Oscar Otis, flatly declared Nashua's victory "hollow." Another, Easterner Evan Shipman, coldly assessed the stories from the California camp as "a campaign of excuses designed to disparage Nashua and to whitewash the tarnished reputation of their colt."
Rex Ellsworth was as distressed as anybody by the uproar. He said he had never alibied for a horse in his life and never would—adding: "If I had an alibi for this race, which I don't, I'd feel a lot better."
When the match race takes its place in racing's history books, the fundamentalists will almost inevitably give decisive weight to the circumstance mentioned by Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons elsewhere in this issue: over an off track (in patches slow) Nashua and Swaps raced together at killing early speed: five-eighths of a mile in 58 seconds, three-quarters of a mile in 1:10 2/5—two seconds faster than Swaps's time at the same point in the Kentucky Derby over a fast track. Then Nashua began to lengthen his lead. Fundamentalists are likely to conclude that if the speeding Swaps was bothered by his tenderness it was not until Nashua had all but settled the affair with his own speed.
Meanwhile, as Owner Woodward and Trainer Fitzsimmons led their 3-year-old champion back East for a fall season of tests at long distances (up to two miles) against older horses, the handsome Swaps was being headed for rest and, if necessary, an operation on his sore foot back home in California.
The racing world will never be quite happy until they meet again.
WINNING STRATEGY: A MASTERFUL RIDE
After close study of the official patrol films of the match race, Artist C. W. Anderson, renowned horse specialist, reconstructs the crucial moments in one of Arcaro's finest racing triumphs
THE START: Nashua drew the inside post position which, on this day, was actually stall No. 2. Following Trainer Fitzsimmons' orders, "Run from the jump," Jockey Eddie Arcaro propelled his horse from the stall like a rocket (drawing 1). With whip in full and powerful play, Arcaro avoided the muddy going on the rail, made instead for the solid running surface stretching in front of the vacant third stall. A split second later Willie Shoemaker, already outbroken, tried nevertheless to guide Swaps to the same desirable strip. It was too late, and drawing 2 shows how, after nearly brushing Nashua in the first few strides, Shoemaker was forced to rein Swaps sharply to his right to get him across muddy going and into an adjacent firm path. The maneuver, which looked almost like a falter, cost Swaps valuable time in his bid to be out in front going into the first turn.
THE CLUBHOUSE TURN: A veteran of many miles around the tight turns of his home track at Aqueduct, Nashua felt at home at Chicago's Washington Park. On the first turn Swaps made a run at him, but Arcaro, still avoiding the mud by the rail, chose to run wide. In so doing he skillfully forced Swaps to run wider yet.
ON THE BACKSTRETCH: Still leading and setting the fast pace as ordered, Nashua covered the first six furlongs in 1:10 2/5. Swaps made his second run at Nashua in the backstretch, but it is failing here. His final bid came moments later on the far turn and likewise failed. Said Shoemaker afterward: "My horse had no reserve."