The 1977 Swaps Stakes
As the day dawned on Hollywood Park on July 3, 1977, it was poised to be one of the biggest days in the track's history. That would come true, but it would also deliver one of most shocking moments at the Track of the Lakes and Flowers.
One day before America celebrated its independence, the biggest star in Thoroughbred racing made his way onto the track in the Swaps Stakes. That star was Seattle Slew.
Less than one month earlier, the horse with ties to Washington State joined Secretariat as a Triple Crown champion of the 1970s. What's more, he did so while staying undefeated, which was something none of the other nine members of the Triple Crown club could boast. Now, just a short time after sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes, Seattle Slew was sent West to Hollywood Park, the Home of Champions, to compete in the Swaps Stakes.
It had been a long time since a Triple Crown winner had competed out West. The last to do so was Citation, who capped his career with a win in the 1951 Hollywood Gold Cup to retire as racing's first millionaire. Twenty-two more years would go by before Secretariat amazed fans with his run towards racing's greatest and rarest prize, and he never raced in California. Thus, Seattle Slew's arrival was literally a once in a generation event for the Golden State.
Six horses joined him in the starting gate for the Swaps Stakes: Affiliate, J.O. Tobin, Minnesota Gus, Mr. Red Wing, Text, and White Sprite. The race would be contested at 1 1/4 miles, the same distance Seattle Slew navigated in the Kentucky Derby two months earlier. One of two scenarios were going to take place. Either the Triple Crown champion would topple his opponents, or there would be a major upset.
The seven horses broke from the starting gate fine, and J.O.Tobin and Bill Shoemaker quickly moved in front. Seattle Slew was battling Affiliate towards the inside part of the track, but close to the leader. There was already distance between that trio and the remaining four horses, but that changed after the first visit to the wire. Text caught up to Seattle Slew, who was well ahead of Affiliate, and J.O Tobin continued to guide the field.
As he went around the first turn and into the backstretch, J.O. Tobin looked like he was full of confidence. He moved around Hollywood Park's main track with aplomb as Shoemaker continued riding him. They were moving through the Swaps Stakes at a fast pace, completing the first half-mile in less than 46 seconds. They had a cushion of a couple of lengths on Seattle Slew, who still dealt with Text down the backstretch as he raced along the inside, but soon got the better of that battle. No other horse was in contention for the win.
As they commenced the move into the far turn, Jean Cruget was visibly urging Seattle Slew, asking his mount for more. Meanwhile, J.O. Tobin stayed in charge as he and Shoemaker inched closer to springing a surprise at Hollywood Park. Behind them was Text, who was not giving up. He came back at Seattle Slew, and as they engaged, J.O. Tobin surged ahead by daylight while still moving at a fast pace for ten furlongs. He was done with a mile in 1:33 3/5, and he was not being challenged. While approaching the top of the stretch, J.O. Tobin and Shoemaker had completely moved away from the Seattle Slew, who had moved back to third after Text passed him on the outside. Affiliate was making a move as well, and drew level with the Triple Crown champion turning for home.
Meanwhile, J.O. Tobin had no horse to battle with. He and Shoemaker were alone out front by multiple lengths, and they were going to try to take the field from gate to wire. With one-eighth of a mile left in the Swaps Stakes, it was clear the fans would see an upset. Seattle Slew would not leave Hollywood Park undefeated, and he was not going to finish in the top three. Both Text and Affiliate had moved past him to decide second place, and that would be the highest position available.
Up front, J.O. Tobin was moving quickly but did so in a relaxed way. Shoemaker, who had found himself in many of the sport's biggest races throughout his career, was about to become part of Hollywood Park history. He and J.O. Tobin were going to defeat a Triple Crown winner.
They finished up the 1 1/4 miles in 1:58 3/5 while simultaneously adding a page for themselves in the story of California racing. Affiliate edged Text for second, while Seattle Slew was behind in fourth. Very few, if any, expected that to happen, and the fans in attendance that day became part of quite possibly the most shocking race ever seen in the Golden State.
When it came to class, J.O. Tobin had it. He did well for himself in Europe, winning or placing in some group stakes before coming to the United States. Already familiar with Hollywood Park before the Swaps Stakes, J.O. Tobin had won in Inglewood a couple of times earlier in the meet, including the Coronado Handicap. The Swaps had actually been a rematch between J.O. Tobin and Seattle Slew, for they had met a few weeks eariler in the Preakness Stakes. Seattle Slew of course captured the second race of the Triple Crown, but J.O. Tobin evened the score in the Swaps.
They would never meet on track again, but each horse went on to more success following their second matchup, winning or placing in multiple stakes.
On that July evening at Hollywood Park, however, the clear winner was J.O. Tobin. No matter the future, he would always have a place in the sport's history by becoming the first horse to defeat Seattle Slew.
For Hollywood Park, it was one of the biggest days in its history, and that also went for California racing. It was rare for a Triple Crown winner to visit the circuit, and those who were present at Hollywood Park saw not just that in the summer of 1977. They saw a member of that club defeated, and they would not forget seeing that moment at the Track of the Lakes of Flowers. They all knew they had witnessed something truly astounding.