Swaps was a California bred American thoroughbred racehorse. He was the son of Khaled, a stallion imported from the Aga Khan's stud in Europe. Swaps goes back to the immortal Man o' War, via his dam, Iron Reward, through the Triple Crown winner, War Admiral. In the list of the top 100 U.S. thoroughbred champions of the 20th Century by Blood-Horse magazine, Swaps ranks 20th.
West Comes East
Trained by Mesh Tenney (a man Easterners scornfully called "raw" and "basic", yet who was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1991), bred and owned by the once cowhand Rex Ellsworth, the two-year-old Swaps was a good horse, but nothing to pin high hopes on. Yet the chestnut colt easily won his first 1955 start, the San Vicente Stakes —a good sign of things to come. But the San Vincente was raced over deep mud, and muddy water was forced into the sole of Swaps's right front hoof. It seemed a small infection. It was treated, and off raced Swaps.
He traveled east by rail in May 1955 to win the Kentucky Derby under jockey Willie Shoemaker, beating the heavily favored east coast star, Belair's Nashua, under Eddie Arcaro. Arcaro was quoted before the race that Summer Tan was the primary threat, which manifested the east-west division between the Swaps-Nashua camps. This rivalry culminated in a famous match race later that year.
Continuing after the Derby, Swaps' racing performances were brilliant. He broke records all over the country at various distances, on turf and on dirt, and often under heavy weight. (In the end, he broke or equaled six different track records.) Nashua followed up the Derby with wins in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. With much interest in a match race between Nashua and Swaps looming, a deal between the camps was reached for the colts to meet at Chicago's Washington Park on August 31, 1955. Swaps tuned up with a win in the prestigious American Derby, setting a 1 3/16 mile course record of 1:54 3/5 on the turf. However, the day before the scheduled match race, Swaps re-injured his foot during a workout on a track wet from a hard rain. Tenney and Ellsworth decided to risk running Swaps anyway. Nashua broke alertly under Arcaro, and he gained a tactical advantage on the lead. Arcaro's tactic forced Shoemaker with Swaps to get the worst of the poor footing. Nashua drew clear in the stretch to win easily. Nashua went on to earn 1955 U.S. Horse of the Year honors. Swaps did not race for the rest of the year as his foot healed again.
As a four year old, he was a monster of racing talent. Even though his foot bothered him from time to time, there were enough times it made no difference at all. At the age of four, Swaps was Horse of the Year. In 1956, while Europe considered Ribot the best horse in the world, in the U.S., Swaps was first in American hearts.
William H.P. Robertson wrote in his "History of Thoroughbred Racing in America" that Swaps' summer of 1956 was "The most amazing exhibition of speed in history."
The End of a Career
In October, training for the Washington, D.C. International at Laurel Park, he fractured his leg in two places in his left rear cannon bone, then a week later banged his leg in his stall, breaking his cast, and extending the fractures into his pastern joint. Unable to bear weight on his hind quarters, by this point, Swaps was dicing with death. Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, the trainer of Nashua, sent him a special sling from Belmont. He hung in it for weeks needing round the clock attention. The horse was calm, patient, and intelligent. His attending veterinarian at Garden State Park, William Miller, said, "If he makes one false move, he's done." In November of 1956, he beat the odds and jogged away from his cast and sling.
He was voted the U.S. Horse of the Year for 1956, and retired with career earnings of $848,900.
Swaps stood his first season at Rex Ellsworth's farm, but then moved east to stand at John Galbreath's Darby Dan Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. His last five seasons were at Spendthrift Farm standing next to his old rival Nashua.
Swaps's son Chateaugay won the 1963 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. But the daughter he produced proved the pinnacle of his career as a sire. He was father to a filly New Yorkers called the "Queen of Queens": Affectionately (out of the great racing mare Searching). The Hall of Fame filly is ranked no. 81 in The Blood-Horse magazine list of the top 100 U.S. thoroughbred champions of the 20th Century.
A bronze of Swaps with jockey Bill Shoemaker stands at the Hollywood Park Clubhouse entrance gardens. Dedicated July 1, 1958, its design and setting was created by Millard Sheets and the sculpture by Albert Stewart. Swaps was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1966. In November 1972, he was euthanized at the age of 20. He was buried in the Lions Circle at Green Gates Farm, but his remains were eventually moved to the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.