The California Comet is still talked about on the West Coast racing circuit today. The legendary Swaps was a winner of the Kentucky Derby and the son of a European stallion. He was immortalized with his own statue at Hollywood Park, and there are races today named in his honor. The accomplishments of the great horse are even more spectacular when one considers the various injuries and ailments the horse was forced to endure while racing.
A Horse Racing Champion is Born
There is a saying about the month of March: in like a lion, out like a lamb. Swaps could very well be a horse racing representation of that statement. The chestnut colt was foaled on March 1, 1952. His owner and breeder Rex C. Ellsworth was no stranger to the racing industry, but he was one of many owners who had struggled to acquire a horse that could change the fortunes of his farm. Such is the case for many owners.
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Swaps had a most impressive pedigree. His sire was a stallion that had been sired by the stud of the Aga Khan in Europe. At the time, such breeding was uncommon in the United States. The dam of Swaps also had an impressive bloodline. Her half-brother, Iron Liege, was a winner of the Kentucky Derby. It was decided that Mesh Tenney would handle the training. Ellsworth was an old cowhand who had little tolerance for the blue bloods who dominated horse racing at the time. He chose to work with Tenney in all likelihood because the trainer was not particularly well-known in horse racing circles.
For all his lack of prior success, Tenney had an easier task with the talented Swaps. The colt was impressive from the very beginning. He began his 1955 campaign with a stunning win in the San Vicente Stakes. It was an impressive victory that placed the horse in consideration for a place in the 1955 Kentucky Derby. Jockey Bill Shoemaker must have been eagerly awaiting the event. He had suffered his most humiliating defeat at the hands of Iron Liege and Bill Hartack just a few short year before when he misjudged the finish line and stood up in the irons too soon. It would not have been lost on him that he was now riding a horse that had Iron Liege in its pedigree.
Swaps Vs. Nashua
The primary rival that would face Swaps in the 1955 Kentucky Derby was Nashua, a horse from the East Coast that was ridden by Eddie Arcaro. Prior to the race, Arcaro dismissed Swaps entirely as a threat and instead referenced Summer Tan as the horse to beat. This comment incensed the West Coast camp of Swaps, and it is reflective of a division in horse racing that has persisted to the present day.
East Coast racing circuits have always been the domain of racing’s elite. Some of those elite had a tendency to look down on horses from California. The spectacle of racing in California with its celebrity owners and attendees didn’t set well with eastern owners who still saw racing as an exclusive club that should not be available to the masses. Even today, West Coast racing fans are engaged in a constant struggle to prove their horses are superior.
Swaps and team apparently did not receive the memo issued by Arcaro. Swaps handily defeated Nashua in impressive fashion. Although Nashua would return to capture both the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, the win in Kentucky was enough to establish Swaps as a champion race horse. After the race the colt was found to be suffering from a hoof aliment that would have sidelined many lesser race horses. He did not make the trip to Baltimore or New York, and instead took time off. When he returned, Swaps reeled off multiple wins and broke track records at numerous distances. All the while, the camp of Nashua watched with growing irritation. Even though their horse had won two legs of the Triple Crown, Swaps was far more popular. The handlers of Nashua began to clamor for a return contest between the two horses, and, after much negotiation, a race was arranged.
The race would be contested at Washington Park in Chicago on August 31, 1955. The weather had been poor, and in a workout the day before the race the California Comet injured his hoof once again. Not wanting to make excuses, the Swaps camp chose to proceed with the race. Arcaro forced Shoemaker to race on the worst part of the track’s surface in the early stages of the event. Nashua would go on to win by several lengths. The eastern fans celebrated as Nashua went on to be named the 1955 Horse of the Year while Swaps was once again forced to heal.
Swaps at Age Four
Swaps would return to racing at age four, despite lingering issues with his hoof. He raced well enough to be named the United States Horse of the Year in 1956, but some of the eastern race fans had taken to calling him the California Cripple. In October of 1956, Swaps would fracture a leg in two places. This is generally the death knell for any thoroughbred, but Swaps was no ordinary horse.
The horse was placed into a cast, but just a week later he began to thrash in his stall and extended the two fractures. As a gesture of goodwill, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, the trainer of Nashua, sent a special sling to Belmont Park where the horse was stabled. Mesh Tenney used the sling, and some days he would spend hours holding up the leg of Swaps to prevent any further damage. The effort worked, and in November of 1956 Swaps was pronounced well enough to be retired to stud.
Swaps in Retirement
Swaps performed reasonably well as a stud, siring 35 stakes winners. He certainly did not achieve the greatness of Nashua at stud, prompting more derision from East Coast racing professionals. Still, the horse remains a California hero that was immortalized with a statue at Hollywood Park and had a stakes race named for him at that same track.
Swaps earned almost $850,000 in his career and amassed a record of 19-2-2 from 25 starts. He was inducted into the United States Racing Hall of Fame in 1966.
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