If you believe what you read in the sports pages...brother, this country is about to be bent out of shape. Yes sir, Civil War II is cooking, and the geography of fratricide is veering 90° from the fight between North and South. This time East and West are growling into each other's lapels.
The cause of it all is a familiar pair of 4-year-old colts. Swaps, a long, red California Thoroughbred of extraordinary speed, holder of five world's records. And Nashua from the East, a bull-like animal whose heart and legs have the timbre of a blacksmith's anvil.
The matter of superiority between them was thought to be settled on a fairly valid basis last summer. The memorable match race at Washington Park appeared to have done that. For about 24 hours, that is. The next morning stories broke that Swaps, who raced on a tender foot throughout his 3-year-old career—and, for that matter, still does—had emerged from his defeat stomping around like Long John Silver.
Since that time Nashua has become the world's leading money earner and has been coldly evaluated by eastern horsemen. Although there have been no noises about dispossessing Man o' War of his niche in the National Museum of Racing at Saratoga, there has been across-the-board agreement that the son of Nasrullah is a truly iron colt; in that respect, perhaps without equal since the great Exterminator. Unlike Native Dancer, Tom Fool, Count Fleet and Citation, the big-haunched colt has never been lame, missed a race or passed up an oat in his bucket throughout his career. Here indeed has been the infantryman of race horses.
August 12, 1956
"Look at him," said an admiring Eddie Arcaro in the paddock one day. "Just look at those legs. Clean and hard as a ball bat."
With Swaps it has been somewhat different. Months after the match race, the Khaled colt was the central and mute figure in one of the quickest recoveries from hoof and mouth disease on record. Swaps's foot ceased to be a problem as mainsprings in stop watches went "boing" and his host of admirers recovered their voices.
In fact, the reporting of Swaps's California performances came to be pitched on a new high key of evangelistic fervor. His superiority over Nashua no longer appeared to be an issue. The sensational undefeated Italian colt, Ribot, with his modest claims to being champion of Europe after 14 straight victories, was ignored. Unblushingly, Swaps has been trumpeted as the "greatest" and "fastest" of all time.
Following Swaps's mile-and-five-eighths canter to a new world's record in the Sunset Handicap at Hollywood Park, Rex Ellsworth was quoted as expressing sorrow that the match race ever took place. That Swaps was lame the morning before.
This came as a surprise to reporters. There had, indeed, been rumors before the race, but the afternoon before the match, Ellsworth disowned the reports. "Swaps is as good as he ever was," was his exact quote.
This writer also had a talk with Willie Shoemaker last winter. Maybe it was the Florida sunshine that warmed up Willie's distaste for conversation.
Were Ellsworth and Trainer Mish Tenney confident going into the match? "They were. Tenney was so sure he had it figured how far we'd beat Nashua. Two lengths was his call."
No one questions Swaps's great talents. But what is it that has caused one of the most spectacular inflationary spirals of horse judgment since the mad Caligula ordered his subjects to worship his favorite mount under pain of being laminated with pitch to illuminate his bacchanals?
Seen from here, the teletimer and the growing craze for speed on the American turf are the culprits. Yet these gods may be as false as Caligula's.
Sports fans have always been accustomed to rating the fastest humans and machines by the watch. The world's fastest plane and pilot? There is no dispute. The impartial tick of the watch points them out. The same goes for auto racing and power-boat racing.
Even in the field of foot racing and swimming the watch is the yardstick of performance. Any track fan worthy of his salt could pick 90% of the winners at a meeting using time as his guide.
Why, then, is horse racing an exception? Because there is no uniformity in the speed of running surfaces at various courses. In human racing, cinder tracks (given fractions here and there) are the same the world round.
The speed of horse tracks varies up to five seconds. The difference between a hard track and a deep, tiring one could easily be as much as 25 lengths. Running over one type is like a man running over a cinder course, and over the other is like sprinting on the loose sand of a beach.
The so-called pasteboard tracks such as those in California, where virtually all of the world's records are held, put the accent on speed. Chicago, Florida and New Jersey are headed in the same direction. Belmont Park and Saratoga are two of the last bastions of the slower tracks, where sheer speed takes second place to the properly relentless search for combined speed and stamina in the Thoroughbred.
Swaps had plenty of company smashing world records which should be more properly classified as track records. Count of Honor, Robert Lehman's newly minted 3-year-old threat, just recently ran one mile and a quarter in 1:59 2/5 at Hollywood Park. There has never been a Kentucky Derby winner or a 3-year-old anywhere to run that fast on the East Coast or on the grass in Europe. A 2-year-old named Lucky Mel recently set a world record at Hollywood Park, too. Was Count of Honor another Citation or Lucky Mel an incipient Native Dancer?
On June 23 when Swaps bashed in his own world mark for a mile and one sixteenth (1:39), other races on the same card attested to the zip of the track. In the first race that day a $4,500 plater named Breezing Bebe ran a mile and one quarter in 2:02 2/5, faster than 99% of the Kentucky Derbys and one full second swifter than Needles' winning time this year. On the same card a $12,500 plater named Flying Atlas was teletimed seven furlongs in 1:22. For close to 40 years, that record has stood at Belmont Park, set by the great sprinter Roseben.
After the Sunset Handicap (in which Swaps broke the world record by one and three-fifths seconds) it was excitedly wired that Swaps had blasted Man o' War's mile-and-three-eighths mark en route to his victory. Allowing one-fifth of a second to a length, this meant the first five horses in the race surpassed or equaled the old time.
Soaring testimonials to Swaps's "all-time" greatness would come closer to acceptance after the consecration by a track like Belmont Park, which hopes to draw him and Nashua in the $75,000 Woodward Stakes or the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup this fall.
Then again this might not even be necessary. Horses are performing only over the tracks that managements give them, and progressive commercialization is the reason for the superfast tracks which threaten to create a new look in racing.
Long ago men must have sensed futility in their own quest for perfection and found expression for that hunger in the horse. The combination of heart, speed and stamina in a horse has always been their goal.
In the machine age there is really no pressure to maintain an old standard like stamina. It is sad that the giant-striding Italian, Ribot, has passed up an event like the classical two-and-one-half-mile Ascot Gold Cup in England in favor of the newer and shorter King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. This was a none too subtle salute to the new order of the day, "Speed...and more speed."
With our own tracks catering more and more slavishly to the new standards, the importance of stamina and heart in a horse are being lost sight of. We are robbing Thoroughbred breeding and racing of their oldest values. And that is deplorable.
Biggest names in racing, Leslie Combs II (left) and Rex Ellsworth were prominent figures at the Keeneland summer sale of yearlings in Lexington last week. Ellsworth was house guest of Combs, who heads syndicate owning Nashua, but hospitality didn't persuade him to sell Swaps to Combs. Plans for the great 4-year-olds: Swaps will be kept in training next year, while Nashua—who will probably not—may well have another clash with the California colt this fall. Other news from the three-day sale: bargains for buyers, and sales off 11% from last year. With owners absent and conservative-spending trainers doing most of the buying, the first two days of the 13th annual sale were marked by low prices. Total sales: 350 yearlings bringing $3,462,000, an average of $9,891. Combs realized the best average, selling nine for $362,000, including one filly for an all-time record figure of $63,000. Top price, $80,000, went to John D. Hertz for his chestnut colt by Nasrullah, paid by Californians, Mr. and Mrs. George Lewis.
Willie Hartack, here showing his professional grip, had 75 winners (a record) in his 228 mounts at the Arlington Park summer meeting which just closed. Bill (the 23-year-old Pennsylvanian doesn't like to be called Willie) has been only four years in the business but hung up 417 winners last year. At the Washington Park (Ill.) meeting which opened this week he took an early lead over all rivals by booting home 11 winners, bringing to 225 his total for 1956.