It was, by all odds, the most exciting one minute and 43 seconds of the Santa Anita meet. Out on the track the four horses in the lead slammed into the stretch turn, a blur of gelatinous color. High in the crammed press box, the writers, looking—except for the trembling binoculars—rather like a congress of medical students at a surgery, watched tensely.
Then the roar went up: "Here he comes!" And out of the pack shot the big red horse, ears pricking, legs flashing. Seconds later the great California-bred Swaps had streaked across the finish line, head and ears erect, and Jockey Willie Shoemaker eased up in the irons—a clear winner by a length and three-quarters in the mile-and-a-sixteenth handicap.
In the press box Californians were overjoyed, "IT'S SWAPS OF OLD" headlined the Los Angeles Examiner that night. Hy Schneider, cowboy-hatted septuagenarian veteran of a lifetime of stretch drives, tapped a companion sternly on the chest: "Did you see that? Make a note of that. He came down the stretch with his ears pricking, looking for horses. That's the sign of a great horse."
Over in a corner, unnoticed, an eastern writer sighed, stuffed his binoculars in his case. "Here we go again," he observed cynically.
And here went Californians again. For the plain truth is that Swaps is more than a race horse on the West Coast. He has become a standard bearer, the steed who was to enable Pacific horsemen to ride out of the miasma of a 20-year inferiority complex in matters of horse breeding. When he beat Nashua in the 1955 Kentucky Derby, it was thought the day was at hand. When he lost the subsequent match race by a humiliating 6½ lengths, the inferiority complex was only deepened.
Owner Rex Ellsworth and Trainer Tenney were smiling broadly in the press box afterwards. The talk of Nashua, of course, was everywhere. "Are you going to ship to Florida after Santa Anita?" Ellsworth was asked.
The cowboy owner was cautious. "We might," he acknowledged. "But if we do, it would be more to help our 3-year-olds come up to the Kentucky Derby than anything else."
"But you will take Swaps along?" persisted his questioner.
Ellsworth grinned in spite of himself. "I suppose we'll have to," he allowed.
Tenney was hard put to veer the conversation back to this Saturday's Santa Anita Handicap, where Swaps may have Social Outcast running at him in the stretch. "We've got next Saturday to think about, we're not looking for tough horses," he protested.
"But will your horse be fit in Florida, assuming he wasn't altogether today?" he was challenged.
"Oh, yes," conceded Tenney, "I've always told the press there's nothing wrong with the horse except he needs racing. He'll be plenty fit in Florida."