The strapping golden chestnut took the lead a few strides from the starting gate and simply kept on running. The first time past the stands he took a two-length lead into the clubhouse turn. Up the backstretch Summer Solstice made a run at him, then fell back. Parador made a run at him, and likewise fell back. Down at the eighth pole Traffic Judge made his run. It was a good one but up in front of him, aboard the chestnut, Jockey Willie Shoemaker, who had yet to use his whip, merely clucked a couple of times, waved the stick gently by the side of his mount's head and crossed the finish line winner by a comfortable length.
That was the way Swaps won the American Derby and $89,600 at Chicago's Washington Park last Saturday. After it was over and the time had been posted (1:54 3/5 for a mile and three-sixteenths over the grass course), everybody had something to say. Perhaps the most aptly correct statement came from a spectator near the winner's circle who, as Swaps was led in to face the usual bombardment from the cameras, turned and said with considerable amazement, "That horse ain't a horse! That's a machine!"
Shoemaker hopped off to pose with the cup and said, "We were a little tired at the end, but I still had a lot of horse left under me at the finish." As they prepared to leave the circle, Owner Rex Ellsworth, out of his familiar California bluejeans and looking uncomfortable in a gray, single-breasted suit, made the day's most exultant remark: "He runs so easy, one of these days we'll have to turn him loose."
His remark needed no clarification for any of the 25,178 fans on hand at Washington Park last Saturday. Nor for the millions who saw the race on television. Nor, in fact, for any race-minded American who has ever heard of this golden horse from the Golden West. The time and place that Ellsworth had in mind when he spoke of turning Swaps loose is the same track one day next week, Wednesday, Aug. 31. The occasion: the $100,000 winner-take-all meeting with Nashua in the most engrossing match race of a generation and, in the fair expectation of the world, one of the best races in history.
The build-up to the race has all the ingredients which instinctively appeal to the U.S.—an East-West rivalry, for one thing; a duel between a self-made owner-trainer combination (Ellsworth and Trainer Meshach Tenney) and a wealthy Eastern sportsman (William Woodward Jr.) who inherited a renowned racing stable, which in its first year under his direction produced the 2-year-old champion, Nashua.
NASHUA ON THE WAY
While Swaps last week was adding Chicago boosters to the millions of Californians who already believe him to be a second (if not greater) Man o' War, Nashua was still making his match-race preparations at Saratoga under the watchful eye of Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons and under the skillful reinsmanship of his regular jockey, Eddie Arcaro. The big bay was due in Chicago on Aug. 26, aboard a private car attached to the New York Central's Pacemaker.
But for all the attention Nashua is getting in the East, the role of solid favorite unerringly belongs to the California wonder horse. Swaps has done everything asked of him with incredible ease: he has, without ever being pushed, broken or equalled two American or track records while winning eight races in 1955—from six furlongs to his mile-and-a-quarter Kentucky Derby in which he dealt Nashua his only defeat of 1955. Swaps has won on the hard, fast tracks of California, won on the grass in his only try at it, won by coming from behind after some heady early rating by Shoemaker, won by taking the lead and holding it. He has won over older horses in world-record time and, from a California standpoint most important of all, has already trimmed Nashua in the Kentucky Derby. The next question Swaps must now answer is: can he beat Nashua again? If so, he is assured of the 12-month honor, Horse of the Year—and perhaps salutes greater and more lasting. It will all be settled in a few days now.
At Washington Park this week, as he goes back into training on the more familiar dirt footing of the main track, Swaps is hardly the object of pampering. "There's no way to tell a horse that he's got a big race to run," says Tenney. "The only thing you can do is to get him fit and give him lots of experience. Teach him to run straight and true and not to make any mistakes. He has his hay and grain and a good bed to sleep on. The same as with humans, anything else you give him may be detrimental."
The only concession to Swaps's comfort is an air-cooling machine in his stall—a convenience which Nashua likewise enjoys at Saratoga. His training schedule is varied, as Tenney prefers a casual approach which leaves him uncertain from day to day just what he'll require of the colt. Unlike Nashua, Swaps is fed only twice a day, each meal consisting of seven quarts of grain. One mixture has one third alfalfa and two thirds timothy hay, with a little molasses sprayed on. "It is chopped," says Tenney, "because you can save one third. Otherwise a horse will waste one bale of hay out of every three." The other mixture has oats, bran, kelp from the coast of Norway, de-worming powder and more molasses. His water is regular Chicago water because, adds Tenney, "he doesn't need special water any more than I do."
A KENTUCKY FLAVOR
Meanwhile in Chicago this week the excitement was rapidly taking on a Kentucky Derby flavor. Ticket requests started flooding in weeks ago and are still coming. "It looks like every General Motors executive in the U.S. is coming," said a happy aide of Director Ben Lindheimer. The track was also busy building an auxiliary press box. The existing one holds 40; Washington Park expected to need space for 100.
No race in years has churned up such universal interest. Everyone is picking sides. And everyone usually has a verbalized reason. Suppose Nashua tries to break ahead of Swaps? What if both Shoemaker and Arcaro rate their horses miserably slow? If Swaps goes to the front, can Nashua stay with him? If they enter the stretch head-and-head...?
Opinions are everywhere you care to look. A double-barreled one came from Bill Winfrey, trainer of the great Native Dancer: "The strategy seems obvious to me. Swaps is a real speed horse. I think he'll set a pace so fast that Nashua won't be able to stay with him. Maybe, though, we'll all be surprised. Maybe Nashua has never shown what he really can do." From Ted Atkinson, who subbed for Arcaro to win the Wood Memorial aboard Nashua: "If Eddie bounces Nashua out of the gate it's going to be a horse race. Nashua has never demonstrated his potential early speed...." Jockey Eric Guerin, who trailed both Swaps and Nashua in the Kentucky Derby aboard Summer Tan: "I don't think Nashua can win any which way no matter what he does. Swaps is one of the freest running horses I ever saw."
Willie Shoemaker, the silent fellow who will actually ride Swaps, looked up last week and made, for him, a long and sagacious assessment. "If Swaps is right, he'll be tough to beat. I reckon he does everything pretty good—either set the pace or come from behind. But these horses aren't going to be very far apart. A lot of folks in California who have only seen Swaps don't give Nashua credit for being much of a horse. But I know Nashua is good. I respect him plenty. He could give us a lot of trouble."
Today Eddie Arcaro, the best in America, is a wise man too. He says: "I don't mind who sets the pace, but they seem to think Swaps will. Well, if he does, I'm going to try and go with him. But, remember, I'm not driving my Cadillac. I just hope I can stay with him."
This week, as Swaps went into his last stretch of serious training, and as Trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons prepared to ship Nashua to Chicago, Mr. Fitz had a few words of octogenarian advice for all concerned: "When they get all through talking about strategy and tactics and the rest of it, it will be up to these two horses to do the running. My horse is ready to run."
SWAPS WINS THE AMERICAN DERBY
NASHUA WORKS OUT AT SARATOGA
EAST (WOODWARD) MEETS WEST (ELLSWORTH)
WASHINGTON PARK BOASTS FINE, FAST MILE-AND-AN-EIGHTH TRACK, ALSO THE LONGEST HOMESTRETCH (1,531 FEET) OF ANY U.S. COURSE
THE MATCH RACE
Time and Place: Chicago's Washington Park on Wednesday, August 31 at 5:17 p.m., CBS radio and TV air time 5:00 p.m., C.D.T.
The Rivals: Rex Ellsworth's 3-year-old chestnut colt Swaps (Kentucky Derby winner), trained by Meshach Tenney, Willie Shoemaker up. William Woodward's 3-year-old bay colt Nashua (the Preakness and Belmont winner), trained by Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, Eddie Arcaro up.
Conditions: A mile and a quarter at level weights (126 pounds) for purse of $100,000, winner-take-all, a gold cup and virtually decisive claim to the title of "Horse of the Year."