The 1955 Kentucky Derby
A total of ten horses entered the starting gate for the 81st Kentucky Derby on May 7th, 1955, but the reality was that the public saw it as a three horse race.
The first member of the trio was Summer Tan, a grandson of 1935 Triple Crown champion Omaha. He won multiple stakes as a juvenile, including the Youthful Stakes at Jamaica Race Course and Cowdin Stakes at Aqueduct.
Summer Tan was a recent second in the Wood Memorial at Jamaica on April 23rd, where he was beaten by the second horse of the group: Nashua.
Sired by the legendary stallion Nasrullah, Nashua had been close to unbeatable throughout his career, and had yet to experience defeat as a three year old. He swept his Kentucky Derby prep races, including the Florida Derby and Wood Memorial, and looked to be one of the major contenders to win the big race in Louisville.
The final horse on that list was a chestnut California-bred colt named Swaps. A son of Khaled and Iron Reward, he was owned and bred by Rex Ellsworth and trained by Mesh Tenney. As a two year old, Swaps put together a fine season, winning three races and finishing out of the money only once in six starts. He was even better at three, going undefeated in three starts at Santa Anita that featured wins in the San Vicente Stakes and Santa Anita Derby. Up next was Churchill Downs, but not the Kentucky Derby. At least, not yet.Entered in an allowance on April 30th, the race marked the first time Swaps raced outside California. It was a memorable performance, for he dominated his opposition by over eight lengths. With only a week left before the Kentucky Derby, Swaps made himself a horse to watch in the opening phase of the Triple Crown series.
In particular, the matchup between Swaps and Nashua offered intrigue on multiple levels. First, this was a new chapter of racing's East and West rivalry, which went back decades. Nashua symbolized the Eastern bluebloods, while Swaps represented the West, which was seen as second-tier. Nashua's trainer was the legendary Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, one of the greatest of his profession and the man who guided two Triple Crown winners in Gallant Fox (1930) and Omaha (1935). Swaps was conditioned by Mesh Tenney, who had yet to win any Triple Crown race.
Also featured in this story were the jockeys for each horse. Piloting Nashua was Eddie Arcaro, otherwise known as "The Master." Already one of the greatest jockeys to ever sit in a saddle, Arcaro stood alone in history as the only jockey to win the Triple Crown twice, doing so with Whirlaway (1941) and Citation (1948). He also had a total of five Kentucky Derby wins, so he was no stranger to Churchill Downs each May.
In the irons or Swaps was Bill Shoemaker, who was already enjoying success as a jockey since starting his career in 1949. Going into the 1955 Kentucky Derby, Shoe was the owner of multiple Southern California riding titles, and was just three years away from being inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame. Well on his way to becoming arguably the greatest jockey of all time, Shoe was still looking for his first Kentucky Derby triumph.
As far as the jockeys went, it was youth versus experience, "The Master" against the new generation, and it added to the intrigue of the showdown.
When the final odds were set, Nashua was given top billing at 1.30-1. Swaps was not far behind, however, landing at a little under 3-1. Summer Tan was not far behind at 4-1. If the public turned out to be right, one of those three horses were going to be the next winner of the Kentucky Derby.
At the start of the race, Nashua had his head in front for a brief moment, but Swaps charged to the lead from the outside, with Summer Tan close by. The three were all still in contention going into the backstretch, but the race was down to Swaps and Nashua when they turned for home. Shoemaker had Swaps on the inside. Nashua and Arcaro were right on their outside, less than a length behind. Both horses were ready to run, and they were focused.
With the crowd roaring as they moved to the finish, Swaps and Nashua were asked for more from their riders. When they were well into the final furlong, the advantage grew in favor of Swaps. Nashua did not give up, but he would have to settle for second best that spring day.
The horse from out West won the Kentucky Derby, and he was the second California-bred to do so, joining Morvich (1922). It was the first of four Kentucky Derby wins for Shoemaker, who defeated Arcaro on the biggest stage in the sport, while Tenney and Ellsworth celebrated their first and only Derby win.
Swaps navigated the 1 1/4 mile distance in 2:01 4/5, conquering the distance in his first try. It would not be the last time he won at ten furlongs, either, for he would win the Westerner at Hollywood Park two months later and the Hollywood Gold Cup the following year.
Swaps and Nashua would meet one more time in a match race later that summer at Washington Park, with the latter evening the score (they would never meet again after that contest). Nashua went on to be voted Top Three Year Old Male and Horse of the Year for 1955, but Swaps would get his moment the next year with Top Handicap Male and Horse of the Year honors after winning eight of ten starts.
Even with that brilliant season at four years of age, the biggest win of Swaps's career was the Kentucky Derby. In a sense, he played the role of underdog, given he was the outsider from the West who defeated the strongest horses the East had to offer. Nashua could not beat him in Louisville, and neither could Summer Tan, who came in third. It was obviously rare for a California-bred to stand tall on the first Saturday in May, but Swaps managed to do it. Just winning the Kentucky Derby gave him a permanent place in Calfornia racing history.
From that point on, Swaps only got better, winning stake after stake and later having a tremendous run of setting or equaling multiple track or world records as an older horse. He was later inducted into the United States Racing Hall of Fame in 1966, the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association Hall of Fame in 1987 (as one of the charter members), and was ranked twentieth in the BloodHorse's Top 100 Thoroughbreds of the twentieth century.
Swaps became a legend of Thoroughbred racing with his stamina, versatility, and propensity for winning races. When it comes to California racing, however, he is both an icon and arguably the greatest Thoroughbred to ever be foaled in the Golden State. Time has not diminished his stature.
Although Swaps began his career in the spring of 1954, he became a legend when he won the 1955 Kentucky Derby.