Swale – Gone Too Soon

Claiborne Farm has stood many of the most important stallions and broodmares for over a century. The long list of world class stallions that stood at Claiborne sired many champions and classic winners for clients, many of which extend through multiple generations both human and equine. Providing world class breeding stock and breeding advice to clients has been the hallmark of the Claiborne tradition. Located near the little town of Paris east of Lexington, Claiborne in their own name has also bred many outstanding stakes winners and champions that have roamed the lush bluegrass on one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.

Three generations of the Hancock family have presided over Claiborne and there have been many winners of the fabled Kentucky Derby that were either bred or sired at Claiborne for clients. However it was not until 1984 when a homebred colt carrying the family colours won the big race. His name was Swale.  Oddly, although Swale carried many generations of Claiborne bred blood in him, he was not sired by a stallion standing at Claiborne.

Swale was sired by Triple Crown champion Seattle Slew and was out of Tuerta by Forli. Seattle Slew was bred by Ben Castleman in 1974, who was a client of Claiborne. He was advised by Seth Hancock to breed his mare My Charmer by Poker to Hancock’s new young stallion Bold Reasoning. Bold Reasoning was a grandson of Claiborne’s great stallion Bold Ruler, who in turn was a son of Claiborne’s epoch stallion Nasrullah.

Tuerta, the dam of Swale, was bred by Seth Hancock’s father A.B. “Bull” Hancock in 1970. Bull Hancock was at the time none too pleased with the result of Tuerta’s birth for two reasons. He was dearly hoping for a colt from this breeding of Forli and Continue (Tuerta’s dam) and the little filly was born with only one eye. However Tuerta, her name is Spanish meaning one eye, became a brave stakes winner when she won the Ben Hen Stakes two years later. (A sad note to this win was that this was the last stakes victory Bull Hancock watched the Claiborne colours win before his passing in 1972)

Tuerta raced two more years and won a stakes race each year. She represented three generations of Claiborne breeding beginning with her third dam Highway Code by Hyperion, who Bull purchased in England in 1950. Second dam Courtesy was sired by Nasrullah and Continue was sired by Double Jay. Both of these sires stood successfully at Claiborne. Courtesy and Continue each produced multiple stakes winners, providing a rich family descending from the great foundation mare Chelandry.

Swale came into the world on April 21, 1981. He was the fifth foal from his dam and was a dark bay/brown colt that appeared black under certain light conditions. As a youngster he had a penchant for sleeping in the paddocks. One time in particular was recalled by Seth Hancock’s mother Waddell when the yearling colt went missing from sight. As the search was underway, the sound of snoring could be heard in the paddock, and lo and behold the colt was found getting his forty winks in a dip of ground. Mrs. Hancock then named the colt Swale, and the name was registered.

Kentucky born Woodford Cefis “Woody” Stephens trained the Claiborne runners and had the young Swale in his barn. Stephens is one of the all time great trainers in turf history. A superior horseman if there ever was one, Stephens had two exceptional two year olds in his barn in 1983, Swale and Devil’s Bag. Swale made his racing debut on July 7 and finished second after leading most of the five furlong race. It was a good debut and he followed up to break his maiden two weeks later at Belmont in a six furlong race.

Eleven days later Stephens entered Swale in the Saratoga Special and the colt won his first stakes race. More stakes wins were to come. After finishing third in the Hopeful Stakes, also at Saratoga, Swale then reeled off three consecutive victories in the Futurity Stakes at Belmont, the Breeder’s Futurity at Keeneland and the Young America Stakes at the Meadowlands. Now such a record would make a colt the favourite to take home Eclipse Award as the top two year old, but Swale’s stable mate Devil’s Bag was untouchable that year and won the award. Stephens did not race Swale and Devil’s Bag in the same race.

Both of the Stephens trainees were being pointed to the Kentucky Derby, so they would have to meet eventually. Swale came out in his three year old debut in the Hutchison Stakes and won by a dominating eight lengths. Next up was the Fountain of Youth Stakes and the Claiborne colt finished a weakening third to Darn That Alarm, who was well beaten by Swale in their previous encounter. Swale displaced a palate during the race.

Still at Gulfstream Park, the Florida Derby was up next. This has traditionally been one of the great measuring sticks on the Kentucky Derby trail. Swale won the Florida Derby by ¾ of a length ahead of Dr. Carter with Darn That Alarm well back in third. Stephens had switched jockeys for this race, employing Laffit Pincay jr. to replace Eddie Maple.

The final tune up race before the first Saturday in May came at Keeneland in the Lexington Stakes, where Swale met up with the first sloppy track he encountered in a race. He finished second, but eight lengths back of He Is A Great Deal. In the mean time his stable companion Devil’s Bag had sustained a major injury and was retired to stud. Seth Hancock had organized a syndicate the previous winter at a then record $36 million and now the colt would be going to Claiborne for his stud duties. Swale would now be the lone Stephens trained colt to go for the Kentucky Derby.

With the consensus favourite Devil’s Bag out of the race, Swale now had his chance to get out of the shadow cast by his dynamic stable mate and went to the starting stalls as the second choice of the betting public at 3/1. The favourite was the outstanding filly Althea, a chestnut daughter of Alydar. Swale carried number 10 on his saddle cloth but started in the first position in the auxiliary gate in the twenty horse field. The race would be all Swale.

The Claiborne colours carrier broke well from the gate and Pincay angled him toward the field as they went past the grandstand for the first time. Althea from the one hole came away quickest and led into the first turn with Swale on her flank as they reached the backstretch. As these two reached the far turn, Pincay let out some reign and Swale responded, taking over the lead midway around the corner and led by two lengths as the field entered the top of the home stretch. Swale then increased his lead to five as he powered his way to the finish line and won the Kentucky Derby by 3 ¼ lengths ahead of Coax Me Chad and At The Threshold.

Swale’s victory was received enthusiastically by the Kentucky faithful at Churchill Downs that day. The second Derby victory for one of Kentucky’s legendary trainers Woody Stephens and the first for Kentucky’s world famous farm Claiborne. Stephens had been stricken with pneumonia weeks before the race and needed special medical clearance to attend the race. This was also the first and only Derby victory for Hall of Fame jockey Pincay.

Next race up for Swale was at Pimilico for the Preakness Stakes and a shot at Triple Crown glory. However Swale had gotten into a baffling pattern of good race bad race good race and his effort at Pimlico was one of his lesser inspired efforts. Swale was well placed throughout the early running and had broken well from the gate, but had no response for the home stretch and finished seventh, 7 lengths behind the winner Gate Dancer.

Stephens, now in better health, brought Swale to Belmont and prepared the colt for the third Triple Crown event, the one and a half mile long Belmont Stakes. Seth Hancock had suspected that Swale needed a little more than two weeks time between his races and the three week interval between the Preakness and the Belmont was just right for his prized colt. Swale, starting as the favourite for the second consecutive race, took command as the field entered the clubhouse turn and never looked back. He steadily and methodically increased his advantage around the one and a half mile Belmont oval to win his second classic race by 4 lengths ahead of Pine Circle.

Claiborne had now won another first classic and Stephens had won his third Belmont in a row. Stephens would win the next two Belmont Stakes as well to run his win streak to five, an all time record in any of the classic races in the world. Swale had now become the toast of the turf.

Racing can be a cruel sport. Eight days after his dominating Belmont victory, Swale went out for a routine workout at Belmont, a slow easy one and a half mile gallop, on June 17. He returned to the barn area and was cooled off and bathed, just like normal. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Suddenly, and without any warning whatsoever, Swale reared and collapsed. Swale died on the spot. His death was instant. Veterinarians rushed to Swale but there was nothing any of them could do.

“He seemed like he was in perfect health,” Stephens said. “On the way back to the barn, he was very playful. He never showed any symptoms that anything was wrong. He never was sick a day in his life; he never had so much as an aspirin. We had him examined every time he raced, but this type of thing wouldn’t show up in the regular examination.”

The autopsy performed on Swale revealed that the colt had small lesions around his heart which could have caused fatal arrhythmia. Although it did appear to be a heart attack that claimed the life of Swale, nothing conclusive as to the exact cause of his death has been determined. His death is still a mystery.

The stunning and inconceivable loss of Swale reverberated throughout the turf world. His death made front page headlines in newspapers and magazines around the world. Devastating is too shallow a word to describe the sudden loss of such a soul.  When I think of Swale, I am reminded of a line in Don Henley’s great song New York Minute, “One day you’re here, next day you’re gone”.

Setting aside his on track accomplishments for a moment, Swale was a gentle horse with beauty and a competitive spirit. He was easy to love and gave back to everyone who came in contact with him. His death felt like he was ripped away from every Thoroughbred fan for no apparent reason. There have been many horses to pass away suddenly that have affected those close to such an animal, but in Swale’s case he was beloved by more than just his closest acquaintances.

We can only imagine what he could continue to accomplish on the track, and what he could accomplish if given the chance to become a stallion. He had pedigree and connections to succeed in a stallion career. I firmly believe that Swale would have become a great success at stud, and we would be cheering on his progeny, but we never got that chance. Fate had cruelly taken him away from such dreams.

So we honour Swale for the short time he had in life, and continue to remember him for the talented and classy horse we was.

(Photo courtesy of Blood-Horse Library)

(Second Photo source unknown)

(Third photo courtesy of the author)


  • This is an outstanding article. I really enjoyed it. Thank you very much for writing it. I agree with everything written in it. This is especially true with the last paragraph.

  • I remember rooting for Swale as a little boy who loved horses. I cried when my mom told me he was gone. Not forgotten, dear Swale.

    –a forty-somethin who remembers you

  • Harold Berndt Gross

    I have been associated in the Greatest and Mystifying Sport known to mankind. I am now in my Nineties. I have been an Owner ( still am) a Breeder ( still am) and have also trained some of my own and have accomplished some success over the years. I have been partners with the Greatest Horseman on Record: Jack Van Berg. As I await my final time here on earth I thank my Family and God Almighty to have been rewarded to experience this ritual I will always remember even including the time I was allowed to visit THE GREAT WAR ADMIRAL @ Riddle Farm and pet him on the neck and give a decent Tip to the groom for showing him to me.

  • I understand Swale’s groom was put off the track shortly before the Belmont because he kicked up a fuss. He made comments afterwards that indicate that he knew there was something wrong with Swale and he should not have run. Swale seemed to lose every other race, which was a curious pattern. Also, when he was a foal he didn’t come in with the rest of the foals and Claiborne staff had to mount a search for him. He was found in a deep sleep. Clearly, normal foal play tired him out more than is usual. Swale was probably born with a bad heart but he made up for it with Thoroughbred determination. Spiritually if not physically he was an “Iron Horse”.

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