KENTUCKY DERBY HISTORY: SWAPS

The 1955 Kentucky Derby was not so much a confrontation between the best 3-year-old colts on the east coast and the west coast as it was a clash of philosophies about raising and training racehorses.

From the east came the establishment horse, the exceptional Nashua. His connections were the patrician Woodward family and their trainer, 81-year-old “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, who had conditioned two Triple Crown winners for the Woodwards.  The west was represented by Swaps and his owner Rex Ellsworth and trainer Mesach “Mish” Tenny, whose unorthodox approaches to raising and training were widely ridiculed by the conventional racing fraternity.  The boyhood friends from California were often dismissed as “cowboys.”

Ellsworth and Tenny were successful horsemen but did not bet because of their Mormon faith.  The multitalented Tenny was a trainer and a skilled blacksmith, who slept in the stall next to Swaps during the Kentucky Derby preparations at Churchill Downs.

About nine days prior to the Derby, Swaps’ rider Bill Shoemaker was thrown in a claiming race in California and injured his right knee, so much so that it jeopardized his riding in the Derby.  Once in Louisville, he got ongoing physical therapy from an athletic trainer at the University of Louisville, located very close to Churchill Downs.  One of the student-athletes who helped the trainer was a then-obscure quarterback on the Louisville Cardinals football team—future NFL Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas.

A week before the Derby, Swaps ran in a 6-furlong race with five entries at Churchill Downs.  He won by over 8 lengths and then worked further to equal the track record for 7 furlongs and completed the mile in 1:36 1/5.

Two days before the Derby, Swaps could not bear weight on his right foreleg and Tenny considered scratching him.  Instead, he reshod the colt and that alleviated the problem.

The Derby drew 10 runners and Nashua, ridden by Eddie Arcaro, went off as the favorite with Swaps the second choice.  Arcaro thought his main competition was the talented Summer Tan, whereas Fitzsimmons thought it was Swaps.

Swaps came out of the gate fourth but quickly took the lead.  He set a moderate pace and had plenty left when Nashua drew within a half a length at the quarter pole.  Swaps drew off to win by a length and a half.

The official chart reported the action:

“SWAPS, alertly ridden, took command soon after the start, raced TRIM DESTINY into defeat before reaching the upper turn, responded readily when challenged by NASHUA during the stretch run and drew clear in the last sixteenth mile.  NASHUA, well placed from the outset, was kept in hand to the last three-eighths mile, moved up boldy on the outside of SWAPS for the stretch run but was not good enough for the latter, although much the best of the others.”

Owing to his physical issues, Swaps did not run in the Preakness or Belmont, both won by Nashua.  In August of 1955, Nashua got revenge in a match race in Chicago, beating Swaps by 6 lengths.  Swaps was likely off his game, having not recovered fully from his injury.

Swaps and Nashua never met again in a race and both became great racehorses and exceptional sires.  Swaps had a career record of 19 wins, two seconds, and two thirds in 25 starts with earnings of $848,900, the equivalent of about $7.8 million today, and was Horse of the Year as a 4-year-old.

Swaps died in 1972 at age 20.

Copyright © 2017 Horse Racing Business

The Kentucky Derby series began on February 20 and appears weekly through May 1 on Monday.

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