It was inevitable—for better or worse—that the major early racing news of 1956 would center around the doings of two fine colts who haven't started a race in months. At Hialeah the talk is of Nashua who may be expected to open his 4-year-old season in this week's Widener. At Santa Anita these days the big question is simply: "What's wrong with Swaps?"
Nobody has to be reminded that Swaps's last start was his losing match race against Nashua last August. Nor should it have to be repeated that Swaps subsequently underwent surgery for a recurring injury to his right forefoot, and that only a few weeks ago his trainer, Mish Tenney, pronounced the pride of the West perfectly sound and ready to return to the races. What has happened since then could be enough to stir up a few twinges of disbelief even among the most loyal Swaps supporters. Yes, Swaps is working again—but for exercise only, and getting him to the races is developing into a tougher job than making the grade at Tiffany's after hours.
The Swaps case, as one might imagine, has quite a few Californians pretty well worked up. In fact, one rumor making the rounds last week had it that Swaps would never race again. Just about the only people utterly unconcerned over what they hear or read are the two people who should know more about the problem than anyone else—Swaps's owner Rex Ellsworth and Trainer Tenney. Their verdict: "Swaps is sound and certainly not headed for an early retirement."
"I want to make it absolutely clear that the foot is not injured," said Tenney one morning last week. "It is a little tender, that's all. We had to withdraw him from two races we wanted to run him in before the Santa Anita Handicap, but only as a precautionary move. It means we are retarding his training a few days, and I will admit that it may be pretty difficult to bring him up in time for the Handicap [February 25]. I'd like to run him at a mile and a sixteenth on the 17th, but in the end it will be only Swaps himself who will indicate to us when he's ready for competition."
Tenney stepped inside Swaps's stall, lifted his colt's right forefoot and began scraping it gently. "You see," he said, "in the operation we performed last September we cut out a small part in the infected area of the sole of the hoof. It healed well, but certain parts became slightly tender when Swaps began exercising again. I can best explain it with a comparison to a human being. Say a man who is accustomed to heavy pick-and-shovel work needs surgery on the palm of his hand. In time the hand heals, but when that man goes back to his pick the hand is going to be tender for a while. If he puts a Band-Aid on a blister you wouldn't say he was injured, would you? No, you'd say he's protecting a tender area until it toughens up again. Well, that's what we've done with Swaps. We've put back his special leather pad merely as a protective cushion."
Tenney, as has always been the habit of the West's most publicized trainer, speaks with simple directness and, on the subject of Swaps's training, expresses a thoroughness of purpose comparable to that shown by the Russians in preparing for the Olympic Games. As he rode behind a set of the Ellsworth 3-year-olds toward the track early one morning, he felt talkative. "There's no point in making excuses for Swaps or any of our horses. Of course I don't like to bring Swaps up to the Handicap with less than 90 days of training. If we get him up to it, he'll have had about 80 days, which, even under ideal conditions, is not enough time. But I feel I know what the horse can do when he's right. He's won before after light work, and he's won before with the leather pad on."
If Swaps's workouts will play the major role in determining his future plans, so will they, to a large extent, decide the prospects of another meeting with Nashua. "I am constantly being asked," said Tenney, "whether I want to race Nashua again and to what extent we will go looking for Nashua. Well, I'd really like to set the record straight once and for all. As for the match race in Chicago, it's over and done with. As far as I'm concerned the score between Nashua and Swaps is one win for each horse. But let's look at it from a realistic point of view. I suppose you couldn't find a tougher horse in the country for us to go looking for than Nashua, and it doesn't take a very smart person to realize that Swaps, when he's right, can go to a lot of places in this country to compete for big purses without going out of his way to tackle Nashua.
"It is true that we've nominated Swaps for a handicap in Florida [Gulf-stream Park Handicap on March 17], and I understand Nashua is nominated for it too. That's fine, but if we do take the stable to Gulfstream it will be as part of a campaign to get in some eastern racing for the whole stable rather than to point specifically for Nashua. However, if both horses appear headed for the same race, we'll welcome the chance to meet Nashua again."
One of the best commentaries I have yet heard on this whole Nashua-Swaps business was made at Santa Anita the other afternoon by Frank E. (Jimmy) Kilroe, a professional horseman who knows what he's talking about. "For my money," said Jimmy, "both horses have been given so much publicity that they have been falsely classified as superanimals. Public acclaim, which may be a fine thing and all that, should never serve to magnify the merits of a race horse. The true merit can be judged only by results and not solely on the results of 3-year-old form. I don't see how either Swaps or Nashua can be acclaimed as great until, as members of the handicap division, they can give away weight and beat horses of all ages."
Jimmy Kilroe, by way of introduction, is quite a man of distinction. He is racing secretary and handicapper at the four New York tracks as well as at Santa Anita. Now any racing man who can work the summer in New York and the winter in California and retain all the while appropriate allegiances to both states is certainly in line for eventual immortality. Jimmy, in fact, was in line for a scalping when he first hit Santa Anita this winter, for when both Nashua and Swaps were originally nominated for the Santa Anita Handicap, Kilroe locked himself in his office and came to the shaky conclusion that it was proper to weight Nashua at 130 pounds and Swaps at 129. Until Nashua was declared out of the race Kilroe had a distinctly pale look about him.
More recently, however, he has been flying the flag of a born diplomat. The other day, for instance, he said, "I wouldn't want to get into a Nashua-Swaps argument—not, at least, until the end of the season. But if you want to judge them on the score of meeting older horses in 1955, just remember that when Nashua tried it in the Syson-by he was beaten, and that when Swaps tried it in the Californian he won."
This sort of tact could qualify Jimmy for a job with the U.N. any time he wants it. As a matter of fact, he's getting so expert at speaking with impartiality that last week, no sooner had he said with an air of complete confidence, "The best 3-year-olds are in the East and the pickings are pretty thin in California," then he added hurriedly, "but on the other hand the best older horses—except for Nashua, Social Outcast, Sailor and Switch On—are on the grounds at Santa Anita." Even as he spoke one of them, Mister Gus, came down in front to win the San Antonio Handicap over a good field which included Honeys Alibi, Bobby Brocato, Porterhouse and Rejected.
Both handicap and 3-year-old divisions will come into clearer focus in the next two months, but, as Kilroe points out, unless something startling develops at Santa Anita before mid-March, the leading Kentucky Derby candidates are at Hialeah or working out in Kentucky and in the Carolinas. But something startling could happen at Santa Anita, and if it does the group most likely to be responsible is the Ellsworth-Tenney combine, who have in their barn what may be the best of a crop of western 3-year-olds which I can only describe as fairly ordinary. The invasion of Florida and the East—if it materializes at all—would give Ellsworth and Tenney the opportunity to cash in on some of the rich 3-year-old stakes, including, in addition to the Triple Crown events, such fixtures as the Florida Derby and possibly the Wood Memorial. A year ago Swaps was nominated for the Kentucky Derby only, and Tenney is not making the same mistake again. "This time we'll nominate for everything and then hope we have the horses to do the job."
A week ago Tenney saddled three of the Ellsworth 3-year-olds in the San Vicente Handicap, a stake which Swaps won a year ago. All three, like Swaps, are sons of Khaled, and one of them, Terrang, won it although he hardly resembled a world beater in doing so. The other two, Like Magic and Airide, were well out of the money. Like Magic is a full brother to Swaps, and, despite a record which is, to date, quite undistinguished, Tenney is in no way ready to give up on him. "He is at the moment both awkward and overgrown," says Tenney, "but he's slowly learning. Terrang, on the other hand, is about medium sized. He's long-bodied and has extremely neat, clean action. Airide is more like Terrang than Like Magic, and he's the sort that could develop nicely in a month or so. It's a little difficult to estimate our 3-year-old chances right now, but after the Santa Anita Derby [March 3] we should know more about them as well as more about our Kentucky Derby chances. Swaps, remember, wasn't in the least impressive at this time last season, and even when he won the Santa Anita Derby he hardly looked as though he could win the Kentucky Derby. That he could go on to win it is a perfect example of how quickly form can change."
"This is a stickup!"