Swaps – The California Comet
Unconventional, offbeat, ludicrous, and just plain wacky, these are some of the words used to describe the training regimen for one of the fastest and greatest thoroughbreds to ever grace the turf. His registered name was Swaps. He was also known as The California Comet by his legion of fans. He was a blazing red chestnut with blazing speed and set or equalled seven track records in his Hall of Fame career.
Swaps was bred by Rex Ellsworth at his ranch in Ontario, California. Ellsworth was an Arizonian cowboy, raised in the desert and was an astute horseman. He got into thoroughbreds in the nineteen thirties by buying his stock in Kentucky and bringing the horses back to Arizona for breeding. He hired his best friend Mesh Tenney as the trainer and raced the offspring of his stock in California. He eventually moved the breeding operation to the California desert during the forties.
Tenney was an Arizonian cowboy as well and between the two friends they would raise more than a few eyebrows with their methods of horsemanship. They believed that good horses do not need to be turned out onto lush pastures of rich grass and that pedigree is secondary to good conformation traits and proper feeding. They would keep their horses in a stall at all times unless the horses were on the training track or racing. They raced the horses often and never “coddled” them, as they perceived how the eastern raised thoroughbreds were treated.
Swaps was raised and treated in the same manner. He made his racing debut as a two year old on May 20, 1954 winning a five furlong maiden event by three lengths. Two weeks later Swaps finished third in the Westchester Stakes and then won his first stakes race a week after this in the June Juvenile Stakes at Hollywood Park. Twelve days later another third place finish in the Haggin Stakes was followed by a lackluster fifth in the C S Howard Stakes. He was then rested until the second last day of the year when he started in a six furlong allowance race at Santa Anita where he reclaimed his winning ways.
The allowance win became the first victory in a nine race winning streak. After capturing the San Vicente Stakes on January 19, 1955, Swaps then took the Santa Anita Derby a month later. Ellsworth and Tenney pointed their emerging star toward the Kentucky Derby and a possible date with the reigning two year old champion Nashua and that one’s arch rival Summer Tan. Swaps warmed up for his Derby encounter with a resounding eight and a half length win in a six furlong allowance race at Churchill Downs, one week before the Derby.
The eastern press was very confident that Nashua would win the Derby and that Summer Tan would be his key rival to fear. There were many pundits, especially from the west, that thought that Swaps was the main danger to Nashua and could even defeat the big strapping Nasrullah colt in the big race. Bill Shoemaker had been engaged to ride Swaps while Eddie Arcaro was the rider for Nashua.
The 1955 edition of the Kentucky Derby has in hindsight become one of the most famous in the rich history of the “Run for the Roses”. First off, Tenney made headlines when he slept in Swaps’ stall, instead of a Louisville hotel, raising curious eyebrows in the press. Arcaro was not impressed with Swaps and would say so in the press, deeming Summer Tan as his main opponent. Swaps, entering the Churchill Downs starting gate as the second choice to Nashua in the Derby, set the pace from the get-go and was never headed. Try as Nashua might, he could not catch Swaps. Swaps ran the race in 2:01 4/5, two fifths of a second off the track record, to win by a length and a half over Nashua. Summer Tan another six lengths back finished third.
Ellsworth and Tenney then made more headlines when they announced that Swaps would not enter in the Preakness or Belmont Stakes. They stated that Swaps was not sound and had suffered inflammation from a split hoof in his right front foot. The injury had actually happened earlier in the year, but was not too severe until after his Derby run. Swaps went back to California while Nashua swept the Preakness and Belmont to take the final two-thirds of the Triple Crown.
However controversy would soon come knocking when Swaps appeared only twenty-three days after his Derby at Hollywood Park to win the six furlong Will Rogers Stakes by twelve lengths. Two weeks later Swaps took the one mile and one-sixteenth Californian Stakes. The latter race was his first against older horses and in the field he beat was the previous year’s Kentucky Derby winner Determine, as well as multi stakes winner Mister Gus. Swaps set a world record for the distance in 1:40 2/5.
The eastern press was up in arms, claiming that Ellsworth and Tenney knew Swaps could not catch Nashua off guard as they did in the Derby again, and were “ducking” the big bay colt. The Arizonian cowboys just ignored the barbs and continued on in California, for the time being.
Swaps won the ten furlong Westerner Stakes at Hollywood Park on July 11, cantering home six lengths in front of his nearest competitor. By this time the pressure to face Nashua was intensifying and the east/west rivalry was making big headlines in the press. A match race between the two would be arranged for August 31 at Washington Park in Chicago. The press and public now had a date to circle on the calendar.
The race was to be run at the same ten furlong distance as the Kentucky Derby. Swaps was sent out ten days prior in the American Derby at Washington Park, defeating the very good colt Traffic Judge in a time of 1:54 3/5, which equalled the American track record at the time for nine and one half furlongs. This was the ninth consecutive victory for “The California Comet”, and his first foray on grass. Nashua followed his Preakness and Belmont wins with victories in the Dwyer Handicap and the Arlington Classic. The stage was now set.
However, the day before the big $100,000 match race, Swaps returned from his work out very sore. The hoof had flared up again. Ellsworth and Tenney had seriously contemplated scratching from the race but the pressure from the fever pitch of anticipation made life very difficult, and they were essentially obliged to run their colt in the race. A rescheduling would take months, if not at all. So despite their better judgement Swaps ran.
The public made Swaps the favourite, as the public was not aware of the injury. Nashua led throughout the race winning by six and one half lengths. The time was a slow 2:04 1/5, almost three seconds slower than the Kentucky Derby meeting. The east thought they had their revenge. The west thought that it was not a fair contest. Both sides had legitimate arguments. You be the judge. These two would never meet again.
The injury to Swaps was severe enough to have an operation to correct his bad foot and keep him away from racing for the rest of the year. Ellsworth admitted that he was wrong to allow Swaps to run. Almost six months would pass before Swaps made his return, now as a four year old, in the Santa Anita Handicap. He won the race but was still not a sound horse. He earned another somewhat tongue-in-cheek nickname at this time, “The California Cripple”.
Two months after the big cap, Swaps reappeared at Gulfstream Park for the Broward Handicap. He won the race setting a new world record of 1:39 3/5 for the one mile and seventy yards distance, carrying one-hundred and thirty pounds. Back to Hollywood Park six weeks later for the Californian, he finished second to Porterhouse, giving his rival nine pounds, in a time that was slower than his win in the same race a year prior. Swaps would set the ship straight two weeks later in the one mile Argonaut Handicap, conquering Porterhouse in world record time of 1:33 1/5, again with the one-hundred and thirty pound impost.
Swaps then reeled off consecutive wins in the Inglewood (in a new world record of 1:39 for eight and one half furlongs), the American Handicap (in world record 1:46 4/5), the Hollywood Gold Cup (new track record 1:58 3/5 for ten furlongs), and the Sunset Handicap (world record 2:38 1/5 for a mile and five-eighths). The latter race was the longest in Swaps’ career. Swaps carried one-hundred and thirty pounds in each race, which at the time was the limit track handicappers were giving. The handicappers would take weight off the other horses to even the playing field instead of increasing the burden on the favourites in each race.
Returning to Washington Park for the August 25 running of the Arch Ward Stakes, Swaps finished fifth, only his second and final out of the money result in his career, but redeemed himself less than two weeks later in the Washington Park Handicap setting another new track record of 1:33 2/5 for the mile. This race as it turned out was Swaps’ final race of his illustrious racing career.
He was being pointed toward the Washington International at Laurel but after two more minor surgeries and an abscess drained on the eve of the United Nations Handicap which resulted in his scratch from that race, Swaps broke down while training at Garden State Park. He broke his left hind leg in two places and there was a great fear for his life. In a remarkable and very kind gesture of goodwill and humanitarian sportsmanship, “Sunny” Jim Fitzsimmons, trainer to Nashua, sent a special sling to aide in the recovery of Swaps. This sling was a key element to the full recovery of the California Comet, to keep him off the injured leg while it healed.
Once he was deemed fit enough to travel, Swaps was retired to Ellsworth’s Ranch in Ontario, California as the Horse of the Year to begin his new career as a stud. There were thousands of his fans at the airport when he arrived back in his home state to greet him. He would only be in California for one breeding season however as he was then sent to Kentucky, Darby Dan Farm in particular, moving to Spendthrift when he was twenty-five to live out the rest of his life as a successful stallion.
Among his thirty-five stakes winners (8.2%) he sired were Chateaugay, winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes in 1963. Affectionately, a two time champion and member of the Hall of Fame who is also the dam of 1970 horse of the year Personality. Another notable sired by Swaps is champion mare Primonetta, dam of Cum Laude Laurie and Prince Thou Art. The excellent broodmare Soaring, a daughter of Swaps, is the dam of Mehmet and Miss Swapsco who in turn produced Ballade, the dam of champions Glorious Song and Devil’s Bag as well as leading sire Saint Ballado. Rahy and Singspiel are also direct descendants.
Another daughter of Swaps to carry his name into modern pedigrees is Intriguing. She is the dam of Numbered Account, champion two year old filly in 1971 and the producer of Dance Number, Polish Numbers and Private Account. This is also the family of the good sire Not For Love and major stakes winners Mutakddim, Daydreaming, Girolamo, and Rhythm. A full sister to Numbered Account named Playmate is the dam of leading sire Woodman.
Swaps was certainly a well bred thoroughbred as his race record and stud record would indicate, proving Ellsworth’s theory of breeding for conformation with a solid pedigree in the back ground to be solid.
The sire of Swaps was Khaled, a son of the legendary sire Hyperion. Khaled was bred in England by the Aga Khan III in 1943 from the mare Éclair by Ethnarch, a son of The Tetrarch. The Tetrarch was a favourite of Ellsworth’s for his conformation traits and was very keen to acquire stallions with his name in the pedigree that possessed much of those traits. He was unsuccessful in acquiring Nasrullah, another descendant of The Tetrarch, prior to buying Khaled, having been beaten to the punch by “Bull” Hancock who had been in pursuit of Nasrullah for a few years to bring to Claiborne Farm.
Khaled was known as a roarer, a horse with an affliction in his breathing that would make him sound as if he had something caught in his wind pipe and create a loud sound as he breathed heavily under exertion. This is a condition that many horsemen are not very kind to accept in their breeding stock. Ellsworth was not concerned with this as Khaled had the necessary conformation and back class for his liking to buy him and bring him to California to breed his mares to. Khaled sired 11.6% stakes winners from named foals.
The dam of Swaps was Iron Reward, a half sister to Kentucky Derby winner Iron Liege. Iron Reward was by Beau Pere, a son of the exceptional stallion Son-In-Law. Beau Pere had been the leading sire in New Zealand before he was relocated to California and then on to Kentucky at Spendthrift Farm where he is buried. Beau Pere is a direct female line descendant, third generation, of the great race mare La Fleche by St. Simon.
Swaps was a kind and engaging horse to be around, and was very intelligent. He had an inquisitive way and would never become difficult to handle. He always gave his best in his races, as his exceptional career would indicate. The multiple records he set during his four year old season are proof of his consistent excellence. His popularity with racing fans, most notably from California, has elevated him to exulted status. Swaps was elected to the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 1966.
Noted turf writer Abraham Hewitt would say that Swaps was a horse of commanding presence and scope, while another esteemed turf writer Charles Hatton commented “Swaps had much of his grand sire Hyperion about him, only in a larger package”. He had a very fluid motion with powerful leverage from his strong hind quarters, in his 16.2 hands frame.
Swaps died in November 1972 at the age of thirty. He was buried at Spendthrift but his remains were moved to the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs in 1986. He garnered the respect of all who knew him and raced against him.
His legacy of speed and gameness in overcoming his various injuries speaks of his true class as a champion thoroughbred. While not founding a male line to continue his name, his daughters have more than capably made up for this by keeping the name of Swaps in the pedigrees of some of the best thoroughbreds of future generations.
Swaps is a bona-fide legend of the turf. The California Comet with the beautiful running action and the blazing red coat covering an exceptional conformation.
(Photo courtesy of Darby-Dan Farm)