At 6:25 Sunday morning, Swale, the Kentucky Derby and Belmont winner, went out for a routine 1½-mile gallop around Belmont Park. He was not scheduled to race again until early September. Swale felt comfortable under his regular exercise rider, Ron McKenzie. "He went just the way he always did," said McKenzie afterward, "kind and willing." Less than half an hour later one of the most famous and valuable horses in the United States was dead.
After the gallop Swale returned to the backstretch, where, as usual, he was hosed off. Suddenly, the dark bay colt reared and fell over backward. He was most likely dead before he even hit the ground. Swale twitched a few times, then lay still. "It was probably just nerves," said Phil Gleaves, an assistant to trainer Woody Stephens, referring to those last movements. "I have never seen a horse die like that before. And Lord knows, I never want to see it again, or anything like it."
At first, a massive heart attack or a ruptured aorta was believed to have been the cause of Swale's death, but an autopsy performed Sunday afternoon failed to reveal any damage to the heart or the aorta. In fact, the pathologists weren't sure what had caused the death of what must have been one of the fittest race horses in the country. No evidence of foul play was found. Burial was to have taken place Monday at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky., where Swale was foaled and, had he lived, would probably have entered stud service in 1986. But it was postponed, and the body was shipped to the New Bolton Center, a veterinary hospital in Kennett Square, Pa., for further study. "He was never sick one day of his life," Stephens had said earlier. "He never even took an aspirin."
Swale's death came just eight days after his smashing four-length victory in the 116th running of the Belmont. He covered the 1½-mile distance in the fourth-fastest time ever (2:27[1/5]), catapulting into the leadership of a topsy-turvy 3-year-old division and raising his syndication value to an estimated $40 million. It probably cannot be said that Swale was a great racehorse—too often he followed a brilliant effort with a mediocre one—yet in 14 lifetime starts he won nine races, and $1,583,662, and finished worse than third only once, that being a disappointing seventh in this year's Preakness, which, of course, prevented him from winning the Triple Crown. Swale won eight stakes, five of them by a total of less than two lengths. He was a fighter.
Swale's death marked the fourth time in recent years that one of racing's biggest stars has been struck down in the prime of life. Ruffian broke down in a match race with Foolish Pleasure in 1975; Timely Writer was mortally injured in the 1982 Jockey Club Gold Cup; the marvelous filly Landaluce died of colitis in November 1982. Swale and Landaluce were both offspring of Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown winner, who nearly died of colitis himself during the winter of '78.
Because of the fragility of the thoroughbred, racing is the harshest of the money games—always has been and always will be. Few have seen that point driven home so hard as Stephens, who at the start of the year was the envy of horsemen across the country because of his barnful of brilliant 3-year-olds: the colts Devil's Bag, Swale, Morning Bob, Dinner Money and Vision; the fillies Miss Oceana and Flippers. But now the barn is almost empty. The Bag, who had been so successful at two, came up lame and was retired to stud without winning a single important race at three; Morning Bob was sold after his victory in the Pennsylvania Derby on Memorial Day and was turned over to another trainer; and Dinner Money was injured in March during a morning workout. Miss Oceana won some big races, but Vision and Flippers fizzled against major competition. And now Swale is dead.
"It just hasn't dawned on me yet how much it hurts," said the stunned Stephens on Sunday.