Skip to main content
Original Issue


Thoroughbreds named Needles, Barbizon, Bold Ruler, Nashua, Leallah and others raced to glory in 1956, but it remained for a courageous Californian to win the nation's lasting admiration

This was the year when the reigning Thoroughbred champion, decked out in unfamiliar orange and blue silks, won six races and the sum of $343,150 for a nervous syndicate headed by a shrewd but smiling master horse dealer named Leslie B. Combs II.

It was the year when a Florida-bred colt, so attached to the slumbering life inside the four walls of his stall that he refused to work—or run—until he absolutely had to, finally ran off with four of the biggest 3-year-old stakes.

It was also the year when a spectacular 2-year-old son of Nasrullah (in his own day a runner of changeable moods) so closely followed family tradition that he could—to the general dismay—run first one day and last the next with no plausible excuse or explanation.

Nashua, Needles and Bold Ruler indeed all earned their laurels and their followings, but in the ultimate sense the year did not belong to them but to that superb running machine out of the West by the name of Swaps.

Think for a minute of the memories the name Swaps recalls: from an undistinguished 2-year-old season in 1954 to a blaze of glory in 1955—marred only by a setback at the hands of Nashua in the historic match race at Washington Park. Then 1956 and, when the chronically touchy right forefoot had healed sufficiently to enable Swaps to resume training, the incredible feat of breaking four world's records and tying still a fifth. Each time he reeled off another world record—always, as the form chart so nonchalantly phrased it, "eased up"—the crowds roared a deafening salute to a Thoroughbred whose heart and courage have earned him a secure place among the greats of American racing despite some hard knocks of eastern critics who write off California performances and times as just so much worthless hokum.

There is a curious parallel between the two most recent racing seasons. In 1955 the great names were Nashua and Swaps. Their rivalry was unique in that it attracted the attention of people who for years, although aware that racing was big business and big sport, never seriously gave much of a hoot which horse won what race—except, of course, when instinctively drawn into that once-a-year friendly get-together known as the Kentucky Derby office pool. Nashua and Swaps did a lot to create new friends for racing a year ago, and most of them—along with most of the regulars—took it for granted that one of the plums of 1956 would be a re-match, or at least another meeting somehow, of the two most talked-about horses since Native Dancer. Waiting for the re-match that was never to come off was, in a sense, like scanning the war bulletins telegraphed in from widely separated battlefronts. In the early part of the season while Swaps was slowly getting into shape for the Santa Anita Handicap, Nashua was hurriedly being tuned up by Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons (after a Kentucky layoff while his papers were being transferred from the estate of the late William Woodward Jr.) for the Widener Handicap at Hialeah. At the time it seemed reasonably safe to assume that they would meet in the rich Gulfstream Park Handicap in March. Then things started going wrong again. Swaps never made it to the Santa Anita Handicap. Nashua won his Widener in what must be considered one of the most exciting—if not the most exciting—races of the whole year. Swaps shipped to Florida but still wasn't ready for the Gulfstream Handicap. Neither, for that matter, was Nashua, who took a sound trouncing from Sailor. The most logical attempt to get the two together had failed and the rest of the year dissolved into one frustration after another for those who wanted and justifiably expected the decisive meeting. They ran in their own localities, and Swaps had the better record: eight wins in 10 starts, a loss by a head to Porterhouse in The Californian and one miserable seventh behind Mahan on the turf in Chicago in what must go down as one of the only truly bad races of his whole career. Six times the Pride of the West won carrying 130 pounds. His world's records ranged from the sprinting distance of an even mile (1:33 1/5, breaking the record held for so long by Citation) to a mile and five-eighths (2:38 1/5), certainly a strong argument against those who claimed Swaps couldn't—and wouldn't—go a distance of ground.

If Swaps's ability or capabilities have ever been suspect it was only because of the apparent unsoundness of his underpinnings. The slight infection in his right forefoot was not, in itself, a cause for permanent worry. But unfortunately that was not to be the only headache for Swaps's owners, Rex Ellsworth and John Galbreath, and Trainer Mish Tenney. A double linear fracture of the left hind cannon bone nearly two months ago all but ended the chestnut's life. Strung up for weeks by an awkward and uncomfortable sling, a pathetic and tragic sight for those who had seen him flowing gracefully past his racing opponents, Swaps has survived an ordeal that would have pulled the very guts and life out of a colt made of lesser heart. Last week, limp and weak through loss of weight, he took his first steps in seven weeks: 20 shaky strides into an adjoining stall. Within a few days, if his luck holds Swaps will fly home to the Ellsworth ranch at Chino. His owners may not recognize the homecoming colt except for the bright bold eye that is the mark of the champion.


Horse racing is probably one of the few sports where the naming of champions seems to be about as risky as picking the winners of any ordinary race card. The reason for this is obvious. In most sports, at one stage or another, the best meet the best and the winner (if you care to overlook boxing decisions in some states) is the best. But in racing, the best horses, partly because of geographical obstacles and often because their respective owners choose to plan it this way, often never do get around to testing one another. Thus, although the majority of turf authorities will claim Swaps as this season's Horse of the Year purely on the record of his accomplishments, nearly the same number of knowledgeable old hands will firmly maintain that Nashua would lick him any time at any distance. At the same time thousands of Europeans who have never seen either of these American champions will steadfastly put up a week's wages to bet that the greatest living Thoroughbred today is an undefeated Italian wonder horse named Ribot (for the story of Ribot, see page 70). This is one of those questions of supremacy that simply will never be answered, for Ribot has taken his 16 victories into retirement, Nashua has also gone to stud with the richest bankroll of any Thoroughbred in history ($1,288,565) and if Swaps never races again—which seems most likely—he nonetheless retires with possession of more world records than any colt before him.

A perfect example of this business of geographical obstacles pops up when you try to name the season's leading 3-year-old. Most veterans will lean toward Needles, the Florida sleepy-head. They will do so because Needles, after winning both the Flamingo and Florida Derby, came on to capture the Kentucky Derby, and then, after losing by less than two lengths to Fabius in the Preakness, Needles demonstrated real stamina in winning the mile-and-a-half Belmont. Four wins in eight starts—but all of them, mind you, were the big prestige races. But all this time while Needles (who, incidentally, was also the best 2-year-old of the preceding season) was winning the big ones and losing a few here and there a colt by the name of Swoon's Son was burning up the Midwest with a record of 10 wins in 12 starts. Swoon's Son's only mistake, apparently, was that he never showed up for the big Florida stakes, nor would he challenge the eastern 3-year-olds in the Triple Crown classics. And yet when Needles made his only foray into the Midwest (with the exception of the trip to Churchill Downs) for two races at Washington Park he was soundly beaten both times. The winner of one of those two races, the American Derby: Swoon's Son, with Needles fifth. So how do you figure it? Do you base selection on the results of one race between two leading contenders? Or on the number of wins? Or on earnings? Or in winning the "name" races?

It seems to me that the only fair way to set up the selections is to judge the caliber of opposition faced by each candidate and then to evaluate the results accordingly. Thus, in looking over the fields of the four major stakes won by Needles, most observers would conclude that his beaten fields were more consistently made up of better horses (i.e.: Career Boy, Fabius) than the opposition beaten by Swoon's Son racing in an area where the opposition is not, in over-all strength, up to the caliber of Florida and the East Coast.

The same theory applied in the other divisions makes the champions comparatively easy to name. Leallah, for instance, Charlton Clay's 2-year-old Nasrullah filly, won all but one of her eight starts against good fields. She should be severely challenged next season, however, by Alanesian, Romanita, Lebkuchen and Miss Blue Jay. A. B. (Bull) Hancock's Doubledogdare gets the nod in the 3-year-old filly division over Mrs. Vernon Cardy's Levee largely through a winning effort in the Spinster, while among the older fillies and mares the standout was Blue Sparkler, a consistently good performer against ranking male handicappers. Decathlon, a brilliant runner for not one but two seasons—although mostly unnoticed because he wisely avoided the longer distances of the classic tests—was far and away the leading sprinter in the country and just last week at Tropical Park he equalled the world's record for five-and-a-half furlongs: 1:03[1/5]. The grass horse award goes to Career Boy for his victory in the United Nations Handicap and a most creditable fourth behind Ribot in the Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp. And Shipboard, who won two of his three races, both times carrying 164 pounds, was easily the best of the steeplechasers.


The biggest dispute, I suppose, will come over naming Bold Ruler the best of the 2-year-old colts over Barbizon. Granted a very strong case can be made for the latter. Barbizon, the Calumet colt who is at the moment the logical choice for early Kentucky Derby favoritism, raced only six times and won five times. And yet his only stakes victory—in fact his only start in a stake—was the Garden State, a race in which Bold Ruler very nearly went down and ultimately finished 17th out of 19. By contrast Bold Ruler, winner of seven out of 10 starts, took the Youthful, the Juvenile and the Belmont Futurity. Here again I maintain that his beaten fields were, during the part of the season in which he dominated the entire 2-year-old scene, more consistently better than the opposition faced by Barbizon in all but the one major race of his career.

The 1956 season, before it finally slips unnoticed into the new year, will probably show slight increases in both attendance and wagering (already more than 26 million fans have put over $2 billion through the pari-mutuel machines). But as the year goes out some of the memories will stick: Summer Tan, so nearly dead two years ago, finally coming back—and coming back big for his trainer Sherrill Ward; Needles frightening everybody half to death as he waited to make his move that brought him from last to first place in the Kentucky Derby; the astounding ease with which Swaps shattered the world's records so often in California and the sight of gallant Mister Gus finishing second to him three straight times; the thrilling duel between the Willies—Hartack and Shoemaker—for riding supremacy; Nashua's quietly impressive last public gallop at Keeneland.

And yet there is, blocking out all these pictures, a more vividly lasting one: Swaps, Horse of the Year, fighting courageously for his life in a lonely impersonal stall way out in New Jersey. Whatever else, it was his year.



HORSE OF THE YEAR Swaps, Willie Shoemaker up, rewrote the record book before he injured left hind leg.


FLORIDA'S NEEDLES: Winner of the Derby and Belmont, shown with Jockey Erb, Trainer Fontaine, Needles earned top ranking among 3-year-olds.


KENTUCKY'S BOLD RULER: For brilliance in early part of the season, Bold Ruler (No. 1, Eddie Arcaro up) gains the year's award in the 2-year-old division.


ITALY'S GREAT RIBOT: Winner of the testing Prix de 1'Arc de Triomphe for two years running, now retired undefeated in 16 races, he is one of the world's all-time greats.