By: Ron Hale
One of the newer races on the Hollywood Park calendar, the Swaps Stakes was inaugurated in 1974 to honor one of the greatest champions of all time and a California-bred who called Hollywood Park home. The race was run for several years as a Grade I, but has since been downgraded
Most people in racing can tell you that Swaps beat Nashua in the 1955 Kentucky Derby and that Nashua beat Swaps in the famous match race later that year at Washington Park. But, most aren't aware that the match race was Swaps only loss in nine starts as a three-year old.
And much like another horse almost 25 years later -- Spectacular Bid -- if Swaps was a super star at three, he was an absolute monster at four. Both lost the Horse of the Year vote at three, but came back to be Horses of the Year at four.
In the 1956 volume of "American Race Horses," historian Joe Estes reports that Europeans were convinced in the summer of 1956 that the 4-year-old Ribot was the best hose in the world. But in America, people were equally convinced that "Swaps was the best horse in the world, and in all probability, the best horse that ever laid a hoof on a race track."
A sore spot on his right front hoof that plagued Swaps through his sophomore season continued to give him problems at four. It was an injury that could never be expected to heal entirely.
Trainer Mesh Tenney pointed Swaps for the Santa Anita Handicap in the winter of 1956, but the colt's tender hoof never permitted proper training. Swaps started only once at Santa Anita, winning an overnight handicap carrying 127 pounds and easily defeating Bobby Brocato (who would go on to win the Santa Anita Handicap).
Swaps then headed for Florida and another possible meeting with Nashua (that was not to be). On April 14, under the impost of 130 pounds, Swaps won the Broward County Handicap, taking a full second off the Gulfstream track record and lowering the world record for one mile and seventy yards to 1:39 3/5.
He returned to Hollywood Park and was beaten a head in the Californian Stakes by Porterhouse when jockey Bill Shoemaker allowed the horse to relax too much in the final sixteenth.
In his next five races -- covering a span of just seven weeks -- Swaps put on an exhibition at Hollywood Park such as had not been seen since Man o' War ran in 1920. In five consecutive races, Swaps set three new world records, equaled one world record and broke the track record by a full second in the other.
He won the Argonaut Handicap on June 9 under 128 pounds, breaking the track record for one mile by 1 3/5 seconds. The final time of 1:33 1/5 also broke Citation's world record.
In the June 23 Inglewood Handicap, under 130 pounds, Swaps ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:39, breaking his own track and world record set a year earlier by 1 2/5 seconds. He passed the mile marker in this race in 1:32 3/5.
On July 4, in the American Handicap, Swaps (130) was eased in the final sixteenth and *only* broke the track record and equaled the world record for 1 1/8 miles set by Noor in 1950 (1:46 4/5).
Ten days later, in the Hollywood Gold Cup, Swaps (130) took one full second off Rejected's track record. The final time of 1:58 3/5 for the one mile and one quarter was 2/5s off Noor's world record.
Finally, on closing day of the Hollywood Park meeting on July 25, Swaps (130) breezed to an effortless victory in the Sunset Handicap, breaking the world record for one mile and five eighths by 2 2/5 seconds. His final time was 2:38 1/5. That's still the world record for dirt in 1997.
Shipped to Washington Park, Swaps was soundly defeated on a soft turf course in the Arch Ward Memorial Handicap. (A year earlier, he had won the American Derby at Washington Park in the fastest 1 3/16 miles ever run on the grass in America.)
On September 3, Swaps ran his last race. In the one-mile Washington Park Handicap, he cruised home in front in a new track record of 1:33 2/5.
While prepping for the United Nations Handicap at Atlantic City, Swaps reinjured his hoof. He was entered in the race and appeared on the program, but was scratched just an hour before the race. Later, at Garden State Park, he suffered two small fractures while training and was retired.
As a sire, Swaps had 35 stakes winners (8%) from 425 foals. His best offspring were without doubt the iron filly Affectionately and the champion colt Chateaugay (Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes).
Swaps was put to sleep and buried at Spendthrift Farm in November 1972. Fourteen years later, his remains were reinterred in the gardens of the Kentucky Derby Museum, just a hundred yards of so from the finish line of one of his greatest victories.
© 1997, Ron Hale