1955: Swaps vs. Nashua

For the fans of Nashua, the 1955 Kentucky Derby was a disappointment. Finishing second to Swaps in the Run for the Roses, it not only signified a rare defeat for the son of Nasrullah, but also eliminated any chance of him capturing the Triple Crown.

After exiting Louisville, Swaps and Nashua went their separate ways. The former returned home to California, where he enjoyed an excellent Hollywood Park meeting by taking the Will Rogers, Californian and Westerner Stakes for trainer Mesh Tenney and owner-breeder Rex Ellsworth. Nashua remained in the East, capturing the Preakness and Belmont Stakes for trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons and owner-breeder Belair Stud as his supporters likely wondered what could have been in the Kentucky Derby.

Those same supporters also probably hoped to see their hero take on Swaps again and possibly avenge that loss under the Twin Spires. If that was indeed the case, they got their wish.

Meeting once more at a mile and one-quarter and at equal weight of 126 pounds (just like in the Kentucky Derby), the Swaps-Nashua rematch came to be on August 31, 1955 at Washington Park in Illinois. It was just Swaps and Nashua, one-on-one in a match race. And before them was a $100,000 purse, winner-take-all.

Washington Park was very much a neutral ground, for neither horse had ever made a start on the venue's main track. Though Swaps won the American Derby there on August 20, that came on the turf course. Therefore, this was new territory for the rivals, which added to the anticipation and excitement of them squaring off again.

Another fun aspect of the match race involved the jockeys. Piloting Swaps was young Bill Shoemaker, who was stil in the early years of his legendary career. Already the dominant rider in Southern California, he was again crossing paths with Eddie Arcaro. Known as "The Master," Arcaro owned no less than two Triple Crowns and held or shared the record for most wins in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Already one of the best riders of all time, Arcaro doing battle with Shoemaker again was a study of youth versus experience. And given that only two horses were taking part in the contest, the tactics each jockey would employ was going make for an interesting chess match.

OVer 30,000 fans showed up to Washington Park to witness the latest installment of the East-West rivalry. Swaps's fans hoped to see the chestnut horse's winning streak continue. He was only the second California-bred horse after Morvich (1922) to win the Kentucky Derby, wanted to see him conquer the best in the East once more.

Nashua's backers wanted to see atonement for the Kentucky Derby. Swaps, the California invader, was not supposed to win the Derby after Nashua had been unbeatable during his prep season. The West was seen as a secondary circuit, and the upstart and his connections spoiled what might have been a Triple Crown run in the eyes of Nashua's fans.

The race had divisional implications as well. Both Swaps and Nashua had enjoyed excellent three-year-old campaigns, and both were in the running for three-year-old championship honors along with Horse of the Year. Winning the match race was going to strengthen their respective chances of securing either honor at year's end. In short, much was on the line at Washington Park.

Both horses broke closely together at the start, with Swaps the favorite at thirty cents on the dollar. Set at 6-5 by bettors, Nashua was immediately hustled to the lead by Arcaro after starting from the inside. When it comes to match races, the preferred place to be is at the front to control the pace. George Woolf knew this when he and Seabiscuit took on War Admiral, and Arcaro knew it in 1955. Swaps and Shoemaker had taken the Derby with that tactic, and Arcaro was ready to counter it after close to a four month wait. He and Nashua had about a length lead going into the first turn while Shoemaker and Swaps were on the outside over a track labeled good. Swaps reduced the deficit to a half-length by the time they got on the backstretch, but Nashua got it back up to a length as they headed down the Washington Park oval. Arcaro and Nashua did not set a fast pace, with the first and second splits being :23 each.

The competitors were giving it their all in front of the crowd. Swaps was doing his best not to let Nashua get away as they went into the far turn, and briefly started closing the gap again. Nashua answered by slightly widening his advantage, but Swaps took it right back as they moved closer to the top of the stretch. The tempo had not increased, with Nashua producing a six furlong time of 1:10 2/5.

Turning for home, Nashua still orchastrated the tempo, but Swaps was not out of it. Racing on the outside, he had a clear path. The only question was whether the Kentucky Derby champion could get past the Preakness and Belmont champion. As the fans cheered the horses home, Nashua began to pull away. He cleared a mile in 1:37 3/5. Swaps moved to the inside, but it had no effect. Nashua moved out a little bit, but was in control as he found a burst of speed in the closing stages. Swaps could not counter, and he and Shoemaker could only watch as Nashua and Arcaro won handily in a final time of 2:04 1/5 to even the score.

The result gave Nashua an abundance of riches. Along with the $100,000 purse, he went on to be named 1955's Champion Three-Year-Old Male and Horse of the Year, but not before placing in the Sysonby Stakes and winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup in a stellar season. The bay horse would race again at four years of age, putting together another fine campaign featuring multiple stakes wins.

As for Swaps, he did not race for the rest of the year. It has since been discovered that Swaps was dealing with a sore foot at the time, but he overcame it to have a dominant 1956 campaign that saw him become virtually invinicible at Hollywood Park as he set or equaled multiple track and world records while winning several stakes. Those performances netted the Khaled colt both the Champion Handicap and Horse of the Year titles, and he gained redemption with those honors after missing out on after getting defeated by Nashua.

After two meetings, Swaps and Nashua never met again on track. Their head-to-head record was destined to be 1-1, symbolic of their status as the best of their crop along with possibly being equals as racehorses. Though they both raced at four, they were largely on opposite sides of the United States.

But the distance between Swaps and Nashua never vanquished the link they formed during the spring and summer of 1955. And long after the two legends last sparred, that link remains as strong as ever.

Entry added June 19, 2022 by AF.