1956: Swaps's Greatest Stretch
The fans who attended Hollywood Park on May 26th, 1956, knew they were going to see a remarkable horse. What they did not know was that they saw the beginning of one of the greatest single season campaigns in Thoroughbred history.
He was one of the stars of the sport, especially in his native California. Only twelve months earlier, he made his fans proud by capturing the Kentucky Derby, becoming just the second California-bred to take victory in the Run For the Roses, following Morvich (1922).
Even if Swaps had retired after the Kentucky Derby, that win alone gave him a permanent place in the Golden State's racing history. But, he was not done. Overall, he won eight of nine starts in 1955, putting together an impressive three year old campaign before embarking on a season as an older horse.
Brilliant as a sophomore, Swaps had plenty more left in the tank. He began 1956 with a win at Santa Anita before traveling to Gulfstream that April. The trip proved successful, for the son of Khaled found victory in the Broward Handicap to continue his terrific start to the year.
Then came Hollywood Park.
Swaps was already well acquainted with the Home of Champions by the time he turned four. By that point in his career, he had won five races at the venue, four of them stakes. Indeed, Hollywood Park was a special track for Swaps. It was where he debuted in the spring in 1954, and it was where he won the Will Rogers Handicap just weeks after his Kentucky Derby triumph.
What everyone would see in the weeks ahead during the 1956 season, however, would transcend anything Swaps achieved beforehand at the Track of the Lakes and Flowers.
Start number one came in the Californian Stakes on May 26th. The defending champion of the event, Swaps was unsurprisingly favored to repeat. He made a case for it, nearly winning before Porterhouse beat him to the wire by a head when jockey Bill Shoemaker eased too early.
Even in defeat, Swaps was still in good form, and the Californian would ultimately be the final time he lost a race at Hollywood Park.
Two weeks later, the chestnut colt returned to action in the June 9th Argonaut Handicap. As usual, Swaps brought a top effort with him, turning the tables on Porterhouse and winning the one mile race in 1:33 1/5. That clocking was nothing short of remarkable, for Swaps became a dual recordholder when he reached the wire.
He shattered the previous track record of 1:34 4/5, and lowered the world record by two-fifths of a second in a tremendous performance.
It was a truly awesome moment in the illustrious career of Swaps, yet it was only just the start of his greatest stretch of races.
Back in action exactly fourteen days later, Swaps put on another show in the 1 1/16 mile Inglewood Handicap. Going into the race, he was already the owner of both the track and world record for the distance.
As it turned out, he didn't break them. Rather, he obliterated them.
He finished up in 1:39.00, shaving one and two-fifths seconds off both records, and this came after a two week turnaround and being saddled with 130 pounds. He won the Broward Handicap with that same amount of weight, and it was the highest impost he had ever carried to the track.
From that point forward, Swaps would carry that same weight until his final career start, a true indicator of his strength as a racehorse.
Up next was the American Handicap on July 4th, and Swaps did not face much opposition. Only four horses joined him for the race, and none of them could derail the momentum of Mesh Tenney's charge. He won the American Handicap, and while there were no records broken, Swaps managed a tie. He ran the 1 1/8 mile event in 1:46 4/5, matching the final time from the 1955 edition.
Ten days went by before Swaps’s fans cheered him on in the biggest race of the meet, the Hollywood Gold Cup. One of the sport's premier races, it featured legendary winners like Seabiscuit and Citation. Swaps joined them on that list, and he did so while putting his own personal stamp on the Gold Cup. Asked to go 1 1/4 miles (a distance he had conquered twice before), he did so with aplomb, coming to the wire in 1:58 3/5 while lowering the track record by a full second in front of the Hollywood Park crowd. Only one horse before him had run that distance quicker, with Noor doing so by just two-fifths of a second in 1950 at Golden Gate Fields.In the track's seventy-five year history, only four horses either equaled or ran the Gold Cup faster than Swaps, symbolizing his prowess as a Thoroughbred.
That set Swaps up for one more start at Hollywood Park. Fittingly, it came on July 25th, closing day of the spring/summer meet. He faced eight rivals in the 1 5/8 mile Sunset Handicap. That was the longest distance he faced in his career, and in a meet that saw him break records and win at various distances, the question was simple. Did Swaps have anything left?
The answer was an emphatic yes.
Not one rival could keep Swaps from winning the Sunset, and they could not keep him from establishing one more track and world record. The final time was 2:38 1/5, and Swaps bettered the track record by 2 2/5 seconds and the world record by 1 3/5 seconds.
That concluded a remarkable run of five wins in six starts and eight records set or equaled over a three month span.
It was not just a brilliant campaign at Hollywood Park, but a brilliant year for Swaps. After winning eight of ten starts, he was voted Top Handicap Horse and Horse of the Year. The latter prize was significant, for Swaps became the first California-bred to achieve the honor.
If his Kentucky Derby win assured him a place in California racing history, Swaps’s 1956 campaign at Hollywood Park, when he made the track his personal playground, brought him immortality. For decades, when fans arrived at the venue, they would see a statue of the colt being ridden by Bill Shoemaker, who was aboard for the Kentucky Derby and the entire 1956 Hollywood Park meet.
Behind that statue was a wall. On the back side, the names of every Hollywood Gold Cup winner was on display, including Swaps. On the front side, three words could be seen on the upper left portion, and they conveyed what so many saw during that memorable time in Inglewood:
Today, Swaps remains one of the greatest California-breds of all time, and arguably the greatest. In his heyday, he was the state’s undisputed star, and he took his fans, his connections, and California racing on a magical ride at Hollywood Park over the course of the spring and summer of 1956.
That meet also highlighted the strength of Swaps. Already a versatile horse before turning four years old, those races at Hollywood Park showed his ability to handle different distances and carry high amounts of weight and still win. Make no mistake, Swaps dominated the handicap division at four, doing so with elegance and power.
That also provided a showcase for his stamina. He turned in a high level of effort every time he set foot at Hollywood Park, and he was doing so basically every other week from the end of May to the end of July. A strong runner, Swaps clearly had strong resolve as well, and what he did at the Home of Champions will probably never be seen again.
More than half a century after his legendary Hollywood Park season, Swaps continues to be one of the sport's true champions and one of California racing's most iconic figures.