When the discussion of greatest California-bred racehorses comes up, this chestnut son of Khaled is inevitably, and rightfully, included in the conversation.
For three seasons, he amazed his fans with sublime showings at racetracks across the country. Among the venues he visited were Churchill Downs, Hollywood Park and Santa Anita, and he emerged victorious at all of them.
Versatile, graceful and dominant, he made his fair share of history over the course of his twenty-five starts. When the time came for him to retire, he was much more than a champion.
He was a legend.
Bred and owned by Rex Ellsworth and trained by Mesh Tenney, the origins of Swaps actually involved movie mogul and prominent California breeder Louis B. Mayer. Back in the 1940s, Mayer brought a stallion named Beau Pere to his farm. Beau Pere, who had done well as a sire in Australia and New Zealand, later sired a filly named Iron Reward, who in turn would become the dam of Swaps. It was another example of Hollywood and horse racing being intertwined, just as it had been since racing returned to the Southland in the 1930s.
Interestingly, a couple of legendary horses showed up on the dam's side of the family tree, too. First, there was Man O' War, dual classic winner of 1920, and War Admiral, the Triple Crown champion of 1937.
Though he eventually proved capable of winning at several distances like his forefathers, Swaps raced exclusively in sprints as a juvenile. That suited him just fine. After winning in his debut, he went on to race five more times in 1954. Overall, he was third or better in all but one start, winning three times while staying close to the pace (which he largely did throughout his career). His biggest win came in the June Juvenile, and that was the first of many stake wins awaiting him.
Swaps only got better when he turned three. Based at Santa Anita for the winter, he won his first three races of the year, highlighted by victories in the San Vicente Stakes and Santa Anita Derby. The latter event, contested at 1 1/8 miles, was Swaps's first test at routing (he raced at one mile or longer from that point forward), and it proved to be a foreshadowing of what he would do later in his career.
After wrapping up his time at Santa Anita, Swaps was sent to Churchill Downs (and going with him on the trip was an eighteen year old exercise rider named Art Sherman, the future trainer of California Chrome). With one week to go before the Kentucky Derby, he was entered in an allowance race, and that resulted in a smashing 8 1/2 length victory that put him in the conversation of possible contenders for the first leg of the Triple Crown.
That performance left an impression on bettors, for Swaps was among the top choices in the 1955 Kentucky Derby. Sent off at nearly 3-1, he took control early and never relinquished it, upsetting the heavily favored Nashua to become only the second California-bred racehorse to win the Run for the Roses, and the first since Morvich in 1922.
Even if the Kentucky Derby turned out to be his last start, Swaps ensured he would forever be remembered in the annals of California racing history with that win. But, he was far from done.
Since he was not nominated to the Triple Crown, Swaps did not compete in the Preakness or Belmont Stakes. He did, however, win his next four starts (all of them stakes) by a combined 20 1/4 lengths. The first of those was the Will Rogers Handicap at Hollywood Park, which he won by a dozen lengths. Favored at odds-on, he would be the top choice in every start thereafter, going off at less than even money every time. The fans knew that when Swaps was in the lineup, he was the one to beat.
His lone defeat that year came in a rematch against Nashua at Washington Park in late August. Nashua would beat him for Top Three Year Old and Horse of the Year honors, but Swaps was on his way to taking center stage once more.
Returning to action the following winter, Swaps started off winning an allowance at Santa Anita and the Broward Handicap at Gulfstream Park (where he set a world for 1 mile and 70 yards with a final time of 1:39 3/5). Those were just warm ups for what became his magnum opus. It did not consist of one race, but rather one meet, and it happened at Hollywood Park.
After narrowly missing victory in the Californian Stakes, Swaps and Bill Shoemaker (who rode him in the Kentucky Derby as well as the majority of the colt's races), moved to an entirely new level. In short, Hollywood Park became their personal playground over the course of two months.
From June 9th to July 25th, Swaps and Shoemaker won five races: the Argonaut Handicap, Inglewood Handicap, American Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Sunset Handicap. All five events were contested at different distances ranging from one mile to 1 5/8 miles, and each race was longer than the previous.
None of that fazed the duo, and no one could stop them. They not only won all of those events, they did so while setting or equaling no less than eight track or world records. It was a classic showcase of Swaps's prowess as a racehorse, for his ability to win, carry weight, and navigate various distances were all highlighted, and he won a richly deserved Horse of the Meet title as a result of his outstanding work.
The Kentucky Derby may have been the biggest win of his career, but the spring/summer meet at Hollywood Park was his finest hour.
After a seventh in the Arch Ward Memorial Handicap at Washington Park in August, Swaps and Shoemaker teamed one more time to win the Washington Park Handicap in what was the chestnut colt's career finale. That put his record at nineteen wins, two seconds, and two thirds in twenty-five starts for total earnings of $848,900.
Those sterling efforts at Hollywood Park were instrumental in Swaps being voted Top Handicap Horse and Horse of the Year for 1956, and that cemented his place as a legend of California racing and the sport at large.
After being retired due to injury in the fall of 1956, Swaps went on to stud duty, ultimately siring nearly three dozen stakes winners before passing away in 1972. He never competed in the Belmont Stakes, but he did win it as a stallion thanks to his son, Chateaugay, in 1963.
Swaps continued to receive accolades well after retirement. He was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1966, and went on to be a charter member of the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association Hall of Fame in 1987. In 1999, the Blood-Horse revealed its top 100 Thoroughbreds of the 20th century. Swaps was very much a part of the list, coming in at number twenty.
After Swaps was retired, Hollywood Park honored him with a statue at the track. From the time it was unveiled until Hollywood Park's closure in 2013, track patrons could see the statue of Swaps with Bill Shoemaker aboard. Two legends, forever linked, remained a presence at the track they once dominated, and future generations were able to learn of them and their achievements.
Hollywood Park offered one more tribute to the champion Thoroughbred. In 1974, the Swaps Stakes was held at the Track of the Lakes and Flowers, and it would be part of the annual spring/summer meet until 2013. Up to the time Hollywood Park closed its doors, Swaps was still a part of the venue where he once amazed crowds.
Decades have passed since Swaps's heyday, but he ensured his legacy well before retiring. No one who saw him in action would forget him, and he continues to live on in the sport's history as quite possibly the greatest California-bred to ever roam a racetrack.
Sources: Leonard, Tony. "Triple Crown or not, California Chrome really is a Hollywood story." June 10, 2016. https://the-tony-leonard-collection.myshopify.com/blogs/news/123280769-triple-crown-or-not-california-chrome-really-is-a-hollywood-story
Pedulla, Tom. "Swaps: A Well-Oiled Machine. December 24th, 2018. https://www.americasbestracing.net/the-sport/2018-swaps-well-oiled-machine