07/26/2001 11:00PM

The head cheerleader for Swoon's Son


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Hall of Fame induction ceremonies on Aug. 6 will honor the great filly Maskette as the yesteryear selection. Dave Erb doesn't argue the choice. As the best 2-year-old filly of 1908 and best 3-year-old filly of 1909, Maskette has a record that speaks for itself. But Erb, one of the outstanding money riders of his day - the 1940's and 1950's - strongly endorses a favorite mount, Swoon's Son, as worthy of consideration in future elections.

Erb has a point. Swoon's Son, a 2-year-old of 1955, won 30 of his 51 starts, and 21 of those victories came in stakes. His souvenirs include the Arlington Futurity, the Washington Park Futurity, the Arlington Classic, the American Derby, the Clark Handicap, the Churchill Downs Handicap, and many other Midwestern features of consequence.

"He broke his maiden in the Bashford Manor," Erb recalled the other day. "He was a very good horse from the start of his career to the finish, and Lex Wilson, who trained him, had unlimited confidence. One year they gave him 132 pounds for the Equipoise Mile and Lex never hesitated. Swoon's Son won, and then came back the following season to win a second time, beating Calumet's good handicap horse, Bardstown."

Erb was also the regular rider for Swoon's Son's contemporary rival, Needles, who had his own way of doing things, which rarely conformed to the schedule of trainer Hugh Fontaine. Needles didn't race for the six weeks before the 1956 Kentucky Derby and his only published workout was 1 1/4 miles in 2:12. Erb notes that when Needles got back to the barn after winning the Derby, he promptly went to sleep.

"He wasn't fully fit and the effort took a lot out of him," Erb said. "He was still feeling the effects at the Preakness, two weeks later and it probably cost him the Triple Crown because he came back to win the Belmont. He trained a bit in New York and ran well."

Erb was widely recognized for his skill in the saddle. When Bill Shoemaker received a suspension before the important Californian Stakes at Hollywood Park, trainer Mesh Tenny called on Erb to ride the brilliant Swaps. Erb likened Swaps to a stick of dynamite and recalls he set a world's record that day of 1:40.40 for the 1 1/16 miles.

Hirsch Jacobs selected Erb to ride his great racemare Searching in the Gallorette at Pimlico and another outstanding horseman, Sherrill Ward, rode Erb on the hard-hitting Summer Tan. Erb's good judgment in the heat of battle was one of his foremost assets.

Erb retired from riding in 1960 and began training horses. He had a number of successful developments but his best horse was probably Hurry to Market, winner of the Garden State, at that time the world's richest race. Hurry to Market had tender feet, was susceptible to quarter cracks, and did not train on. Erb retired from training in 1988, bought a small farm near Saratoga, and at 77 now concentrates on his golf, with the same competitive flair that distinguished his riding. He gets to the track only occasionally - but then he's been there.