The prosperous state of California is inhabited by men and women with almost unlimited energy, a willingness to learn and, most important of all, the desire to succeed. The fact that most of their horsemen down through the years have been on the wrong end of far too many jokes—mostly originating in Kentucky and directed at the supposed inadequacy of California-breds as desirable racing and breeding stock—has served only to stimulate the already strong and typical Californian desire to gain recognition. The time has come for a serious re-examination of the facts.
In the first place, Western racing is by no means limited to Hollywood Park and Santa Anita, which is all that many Easterners can see when they look down their noses. There are some 26 tracks for Thoroughbred racing located west of Denver, including six major tracks in California. California, of course, is the big apple in this widely scattered orchard and the Golden State has shown some amazing progress in the right direction. For example, California, in direct contrast to Kentucky, had virtually no Thoroughbred breeding industry as late as 1933. And yet last year 18% of all U.S.-bred stakes winners in this country were bred in California—putting the state second only to Kentucky and way ahead of Virginia and Maryland. Five of the seven leading U.S. breeders in 1955 operate at least partly in California.
Statistics do not always convince skeptics, but the inescapable facts are that America's newest top breeder is a Californian and that a California-bred 4-year-old of his might well be one of the greatest race horses ever seen. The man is a former cowpuncher named Rex Ellsworth, his horse a long-bodied golden chestnut with the unimaginative name of Swaps. These two individuals—with the help of nearly 500 other active members of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association and their horses—have put Western racing on the map to stay.
A few years ago, Ellsworth and his fellow Mormon partner-trainer Mish Tenney were pointed out as typical California eccentrics who obstinately rejected the axiom that a few hundred square miles of bluegrass was the best place in all of America in which to raise good race horses. Then came Swaps.
We can return to Swaps a little later. Meanwhile dismiss the impression that these two are the only Westerners engaged in racing in a big way.
Actually, there were a few active California breeders way before the turn of the century. These men and their successors may have lacked a good deal of the professional know-how as well as the superior stock of their contemporaries in Kentucky—but their enthusiasm and money in most cases kept them going. The real pioneer, if one must be selected, of the group was Movie Magnate Louis B. Mayer, who, with the assistance of men like Neil McCarthy and Laudy Lawrence, built up the largest Western stable and breeding establishment seen up to that time. His luck in the selection of sires and mares held amazingly true year after year until he disposed of most of his stock a few years ago.
If Louis Mayer was the West's breeding leader in the '40s, in the '50s it is Rex Ellsworth, and not too far behind this quiet-spoken student of conformation and bloodlines must be ranked Mrs. Richard Lunn, Harry Warner, Frank Bishop, Phil Klipstein, Peter McBean, Ellwood Johnston and Ed Goemans, Peter Strub, Dr. Frank Porter Miller, George W. Ring and still, to a certain extent, Louis Mayer.
What are the reasons for California's new breeding prominence? Said Lou Rowan, president of the growing California Thoroughbred Breeders Association: "Our breeders have searched the world for top broodmares. We now have between 200 and 300 who are as fashionable as you can find anywhere. The best example of this is the recent purchase by Ellsworth of 41 broodmares from the Aga Khan. It was Rex's intention to secure representatives of every good female line in Europe, and a good many of them are in foal now to very fashionable sires."
Another major point, says Rowan, is vastly improved animal husbandry on the farms. Ellsworth's ranch in Chino fully exploits the natural advantages of California, and Rex explained in his customary serious tone, "The old talk about horses having to be raised on that Kentucky bluegrass is just a lot of baloney. I've raised good horses in California in paddocks where there's absolutely nothing on the ground for them to eat, and everything they get is put in their bin. I've been around horses all my life, and I know a horse should get plenty of exercise and fresh air. Raise him in southern California where he can mature outdoors 365 days a year and he'll develop naturally—or the way a horse was intended to develop."
California does not claim superiority over Kentucky—yet. Meanwhile the California Thoroughbred industry comprises approximately 300 farms and ranches encompassing over 100,000 acres and is worth somewhere between 150 and 200 millions. Californians, however, really pray for one thing more than anything else: another Swaps.
Swaps is the greatest thing that has happened to California since Charlie Chaplin left it. I won't be drawn into a controversy over what makes a horse great. But Swaps can stand on his record, one with very few blemishes when you consider that since early last year this colt has really been running on only three good legs and an unpredictable fourth limb. It is a gross understatement to say that Ellsworth and Tenney are proud of Swaps. The other afternoon, after watching him tie the world's mile-and-an-eighth record so easily (and the Hollywood Park strip with its three-inch cushion was no more like the proverbial pasteboard than any number of Eastern tracks I've seen), Ellsworth said he thought Swaps was the finest horse he'd ever seen.
"What about Citation?" somebody asked him.
"Citation was often pushed," said Ellsworth. "This horse has never been pushed—and see what he does."
"What about Nashua?" "We'd like another crack at Nashua," he went on. "We're going east [Chicago, New Jersey and possibly New York] and I'd like to catch up with him somewhere."
Last week, after his Nashua had won the Suburban Handicap at Belmont on the same afternoon Swaps was winning the American Handicap at Hollywood Park, Leslie Combs had this to say: "There may or may not be another match race. If Swaps comes east and is in any of the races we're entered in, we'll be delighted to meet him. I think they're two great horses, but I don't think another match race will decide anything any more than Chicago did. You'd still have factions that think Nashua's better and factions that think Swaps is better." And from Nashua's trainer, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, "We're not too anxious to meet Swaps, but we won't hide from him."
This week both horses may go back into action, Nashua in the Monmouth Handicap and Swaps in the Hollywood Gold Cup. Their meeting, if there is one, would have to take place in the fall and most likely at either Garden State or at Belmont. After that it will be too late, for Nashua is scheduled for retirement to the stud after a farewell appearance at Keeneland in October. Will Ellsworth be sorry to see Nashua out of the picture? Yes and no. Yes, if Swaps hasn't had a chance to square matters with him first. No, on the other hand, because with Nashua down on the farm Ellsworth sees an even rosier future ahead for Swaps. It includes, for example, a full year of racing for the California champion in 1957. And a full year of racing for this jetlike animal who does things so effortlessly, with possibly as much pure speed as any horse who ever lived, could well mean—as even any non-Californian can readily see—a most serious assault on Nashua's money-winning record.
Californians fully expect such an attack, and they have no doubts that Swaps will succeed. I'm half inclined to agree with them.
LOUIS B. MAYER
FRANK P. MILLER
GEORGE W. RING