In spring 2014, California Chrome glided to victory in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. The two wins catapulted him to national horse racing fame, and the Cinderella story behind his success added luster to the achievements. His two small-time owners had been dubbed “dumb asses” when they paid $8000 for his mother, widely considered to be a worthless mare, and then bred her to a stallion whose bargain-basement stud fee of $2000 at the time reflected an unremarkable record of only 3 wins from 22 starts. California Chrome went on to even greater achievements, and captured the affection and admiration of racing and non-racing fans alike around the world, becoming one of the most beloved racehorses ever to set four hooves on a track.
The surprising success story of California Chrome is reminiscent of the saga of another California-bred Kentucky Derby winner with a gleaming chestnut coat—the legendary Swaps, who raced in the mid-1950s. Several links exist between these two horses, but it was especially the human connection that resurrected interest in this great thoroughbred of the past, generating a number of retrospective stories, both in print and online. That connection was Art Sherman, California Chrome’s trainer, who had also been Swaps’s exercise rider when he was a teenager.
Although Swaps’s achievements on the racetrack were truly amazing, something even more admirable lay behind them—a characteristic not as readily apparent as his blazing speed, sinuous grace, and fluent stride. For Swaps was a horse of extraordinary grit and courage, exhibiting a tremendous determination to win. Without his great heart, none of his brilliant accomplishments would have been possible, because—as his owner, trainer, and jockey knew, but others did not—most of the time, Swaps ran on only three good legs.
Swaps emerged from a background as humble as that of California Chrome. He was bred at a time when California thoroughbreds were looked down upon. His owner and his trainer, Mormon cowboys Rex Ellsworth and Meshach Tenney, grew up on an Arizona cattle ranch in the early 1900s. Inseparable as boyhood friends, they later became partners.
But like the men who bred California Chrome, Rex Ellsworth had a dream: he wanted to breed thoroughbred racehorses. Because he could not afford to buy stock according to pedigree and performance, he bought the best stock he could, using the know-how about equine conformation he had picked up on the range, and bartered cattle for stud services. Eventually he was able to borrow the funds to buy a world-class stallion—Khaled, son of English champion Hyperion—and some fine brood mares, including Iron Reward, Swaps’s dam. He purchased a ranch in Chino, California, a utilitarian facility resembling a cattle stockyard. No bluegrass adorned the ground; the horses were fed scientifically formulated nutritional pellets.
Regarding Swaps’s birth, the lines between myth and fact are indistinct. One account has him born outdoors, unattended, in a puddle of rain water. Another has Ellsworth present, prophesying that the newborn colt would surely be something special by the ease and suppleness with which he rose to his feet.
Swaps did not impress at 2, but his 3-year-old debut provided a glimpse of a more illustrious future. The great jockey Bill Shoemaker had become his regular rider, and had Swaps under a snug hold during the early stages of the 7-furlong San Vicente stakes. When he let him go, Swaps exploded, “knocked the rider into the rumble seat,” looped the field around the turn, and won by 3-1/4 lengths.1 Unfortunately, the track was muddy, and Swaps came out of the race with an infected right front foot, an ailment which would plague him for the rest of his career.
Tenney packed the infected foot with a lanolin-based ointment containing natural medicine he had developed on the range, and covered it with a leather pad made from the sole of a woman’s shoe. Swaps managed to win the Santa Anita Derby, but still wasn’t definite for the Kentucky Derby. After a sensational time trial, however, his team decided to go to the Bluegrass State.
The eastern blueblood racing establishment questioned Swaps’s credentials, and were shocked by his team’s unconventional methods, which they ridiculed mercilessly. According to Sherman, when they saw Swaps being ridden bareback in a figure-eight between the barns, “all the hardboots went bananas.”2 A story circulated that Tenney rode Swaps in a western saddle to the racing office to pick up his mail, leaving him tied to a hitching rail like a cowpony. Ellsworth and Tenney did their own farrier work, which was unheard of. To save money, Tenney slept with Swaps in his stall. A picture of Tenney lying under a blanket in the straw next to a reclining Swaps appeared in Life magazine.
The Derby was considered a two-horse race between Nashua, the champion at 2 and undefeated at 3, and Summer Tan, his archrival. Six days before the Derby, Swaps won a 6‑furlong race by 8‑1/4 lengths in near track-record time, garnering new respect. Swaps almost didn’t run in the Derby, however, because on the Thursday before the race, he could not put weight on the injured foot. But Tenney filed the hoof at a new angle and replaced the makeshift pad he’d previously made. Swaps worked satisfactorily the next day.
Such was Nashua’s reputation that only 10 horses were entered, and he was heavily favored, with Swaps the second choice. Nashua broke on top but was taken back and Swaps took the lead. When Nashua finally went after him, he could proceed no farther than Swaps’s girth. The chestnut pulled away, winning by 1‑1/2 lengths, his time only two-fifths of a second off the stakes record set by Whirlaway. The victory effectively made Swaps the champion of the California thoroughbred breeding industry, ending a 33-year drought in winning the Run for the Roses. The only other California-bred to do it was Morvich in 1922.
Swaps was not nominated for the remainder of the Triple Crown, so he returned to California where he turned in electrifying performances, including beating good older horses in June in world record time, a stunning achievement for a 3-year-old. But Nashua ruled in the east, easily winning the Preakness, Belmont, and other races, and a clamor arose for a rematch. A phone call by actor Don Ameche precipitated the arrangement of a match race, to be held at Washington Park racetrack in Chicago on August 31. The distance was 1‑1/4 miles for a prize of $100,000, winner-take-all. The event attracted enormous nationwide interest and national media coverage.
Nashua won, defeating Swaps by a humiliating 6‑1/2 lengths. Shoemaker wrote later that the chronic infection in his foot had resurfaced the day before the race, but his connections were told that the race could not be canceled, as too much had gone into it. Ellsworth went along with the decision. Shoemaker expressed the opinion that Tenney and Ellsworth may have thought Swaps could win even with a bad foot.
He required surgery on that foot in September and recuperated at the Chino ranch. In January, the hoof injury returned, this time without infection. Tenney cut away some of the hoof and used a leather pad to protect it. Swaps finally started in the L.A. County Fair Handicap, dispatching a formidable field by 2 lengths. Although he did not set a record, he won with his ears pricked as if “looking for horses” and his legion of fans began to cheer again.3 Carrying 130 pounds, Swaps then won the Broward Handicap at Gulfstream Park in Florida with incredible ease in the world-record time of 1 minute 39‑3/5 seconds for a mile and seventy yards. Back at Hollywood Park in California, he lost his next race when Shoemaker eased him prematurely and couldn’t get him going again in time to beat the good horse Porterhouse, who won by a head.
Swaps then embarked on a series of record-breaking performances within a six-week period and “mainsprings in stopwatches went ‘boing.’”4 Always eased up before the finish to protect his hoof, he won in a seemingly effortless fashion, despite the fact that his damaged foot wasn’t sound, “and never would be.”5 In four of those races he carried 130 pounds, giving large weight concessions to his competitors.
A bruised bulb on the back of his problematic foot and a severe case of cracked heels were issues just prior to the Argonaut Handicap. Treated by Tenney, Swaps (128 lbs.) broke Citation’s world mark for a mile by 2/5 of a second, winning in 1 minute 33-1/5 seconds. Assigned 130 pounds for the Inglewood Handicap 14 days later, Swaps set a new world record of 1 minute 39 seconds for 1-1/16 miles, breaking his own world mark of the previous year by 1‑2/5 seconds. A little over a week later, Swaps (130 lbs.) equaled the world record of 1 minute 46‑4/5 seconds for 1‑1/8 miles in the American Handicap. The back of the pastern of his damaged foot was bleeding as he stood in the winner’s circle.
After only ten days, Swaps (130 lbs.) was back in the starting gate again for the Hollywood Gold Cup at 1‑1/4 miles. He won in track-record time of I minute 58‑3/5 seconds, missing the world mark by only 2/5 of a second, despite being reined in by Shoemaker after amassing a 4-length lead. The Sunset Handicap, at 1‑5/8 miles, was his final race at Hollywood Park, and Swaps (130 lbs.) won that in world-record time of 2 minutes 38‑1/5 seconds.
But that final time doesn’t do justice to the magnitude of his accomplishment. He led all the way, winning by more than 4 lengths, despite being held so hard by Shoemaker that his arms and hands ached afterward. En route, Swaps reeled off astounding times, including running 1‑3/8 miles one second faster than Man o’ War’s world record for the distance.
The Ellsworth stable then shipped to Washington Park in Chicago. There Swaps (130 lbs.) ran the poorest race of his career, finishing seventh on the turf in the Arch Ward Memorial Handicap. An earlier rain may have rendered the course too soft for his unsound foot. But he had no difficulty on the main track eight days later, winning the Washington Park Handicap, again carrying 130 pounds, in the track-record time of 1 minute 33‑2/5 seconds for a mile. Except for his previous record, it was the fastest running of the distance ever.
Although the great chestnut’s courage was sorely tested by his damaged foot, Swaps faced the greatest trial of his life the following October when he broke his left hind leg in two places during a morning gallop at Garden State Park in New Jersey. Strung up for weeks in a sling provided by Nashua’s trainer, “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, Swaps lost 300 pounds but bravely fought for his life. As Whitney Tower wrote in Sports Illustrated, he “survived an ordeal that would have pulled the very guts and life out of a colt made of lesser heart.”6 Swaps was elected 1956 Horse of the Year in all post-season polls, the first California-bred to win the honor.
John W. Galbreath bought Swaps from Ellsworth for $2 million, paid in two installments, and brought him to Darby Dan Farm in Kentucky in 1957. Swaps sired Chateaugay (winner of the Derby and Belmont), the champion fillies Affectionately and Primonetta, and the great brood mare Intriguing. Through her Swaps has yet another connection to California Chrome: they share DNA, as Swaps appears twice in Chrome’s pedigree. California Chrome was also voted Horse of the Year—winning the honor twice, in 2014 and 2016.
Before the 2014 Kentucky Derby, Sherman ducked away to Swaps’s grave, located on the grounds of the Kentucky Derby Museum, and said a prayer, asking that California Chrome be blessed with some of Swap’s talent. Chrome won, inspiring Sherman to call him “my Swaps.”7
Looking Back: Remembering Swaps
- Barry Irwin, Swaps: The California Comet (Lexington, KY: Eclipse Press, 2002), 56.
- Steve Haskins, “Art Sherman, Dave Erb ‘Swap’ Stories,” Hangin’ with Haskin (blog), April 13, 2014. http://cs.bloodhorse.com/blogs/horse-racing-steve-haskin/archive/2014/04/13/haskin-art-sherman-dave-erb-quot-swap-quot-stories.aspx
- James Murray, “And Out in California . . . ,” Sports Illustrated, February 27, 1956:
- Pat Lynch, “Telemeter Mania,” Sports Illustrated, August 13, 1956: 48.
- Joe Estes and others, American Racehorses 1956, “Swaps,” 58.
- Whitney Tower, “Swaps’s Year,” Sports Illustrated, December 10, 1956:
- Avalyn Hunter. “Swaps (USA),” American Classic Pedigrees (web site), accessed 4 May 2017. http://www.americanclassicpedigrees.com/swaps.html
Estes, Joe and others. American Racehorses 1956. Woodstock, VT: The Countryman Press, 1957.
Haskin, Steve. “Art Sherman, Dave Erb ‘Swap’ Stories,” Hangin’ with Haskin (blog), April 13, 2014. http://cs.bloodhorse.com/blogs/horse-racing-steve-haskin/archive/2014/04/13/haskin-art-sherman-dave-erb-quot-swap-quot-stories.aspx
Hunter, Avalyn. American Classic Pedigrees, 1914–2002. Lexington, KY: Eclipse Press, 2003.
__________. “Swaps (USA),” American Classic Pedigrees (web site), accessed 4 May 2017. http://www.americanclassicpedigrees.com/swaps.html
Irwin, Barry. Swaps: The California Comet. Thoroughbred Legends. Lexington, KY: Eclipse Press, 2002.
Lynch, Pat. “Telemeter Mania,” Sports Illustrated, August 13, 1956.
Murray, James. “And Out in California. . . ,” Sports Illustrated, February 27, 1956.
Peters, Anne. “Daughters Keep Swaps Line Alive,” June 13, 2014. http://www.bloodhorse.com/horse-racing/articles/113825/daughters-keep-swaps-line-alive
Tower, Whitney. “Swaps’s Year,” Sports Illustrated, December 10, 1956.