06/27/2013 2:06PM

History challenge: Swaps the gold standard of the Golden State

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Hollywood Park photo
Swaps, considered by many the greatest California-bred ever, won 19 of his 25 career starts, including the 1955 Kentucky Derby over arch rival Nashua.

The announcement in May that Hollywood Park, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, would cease racing at the end of the year could not help but bring back memories of Swaps, perhaps the greatest Thoroughbred ever bred in California.

On July 1, 1958, Hollywood Park dedicated a bronze statue of the Hall of Fame champion just inside the entrance to its clubhouse. For 55 years, the statue has greeted millions of visitors from around the world, including those attending three Breeders’ Cups.

Swaps made 14 of his 25 lifetime starts from 1954-1956 at Hollywood, then nicknamed “the track of the lakes and flowers,” one of the most beautiful racecourses in America.

While Swaps’s name generally finds itself just outside most lists of the 20th century’s top 10 Thoroughbreds, there were few, if any, champions who possessed greater speed throughout their careers.

When Swaps retired following the 1956 season, when he was voted Horse of the Year, he had equaled or broken 10 track, American, and/or world records. Compare this with some other champions who set or equaled many time records: Kelso (1959-1966) had nine such records, Man o’ War (1919-1920) and Spectacular Bid (1978-1980) each had eight, and Coaltown (1948-1951) had seven.

But Swaps’s most important win did not involve a track record. It was his victory over favored Nashua in the 1955 Kentucky Derby.
With the 40th and final running of the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park next Thursday, test your knowledge of this California comet.

1. Rex C. Ellsworth, who bred and owned Swaps, was unlike most blue bloods who stood atop the breeder and owner standings for much of the 20th century.

Born in 1907, Ellsworth grew up on a cattle ranch near the small town of Safford, Ariz. Since horsemanship was an integral part of running a large cattle operation, he and his brothers quickly learned how to ride and care for horses. When he was a teenager, Ellsworth was put in charge of managing 1,000 head of cattle.

While he was close to his brothers, it was a lifetime friendship that he formed at age 8 with a Mexican-born boy his age that would complete a duo that would make racing history. Name Ellsworth’s friend who would be his partner and trainer for nearly four decades.

2. When he was 26, Ellsworth decided to get into the horse breeding and racing business. With $625 he had saved – a nice figure during the Great Depression – he rented a truck and drove to the sales in Lexington, Ky., where he purchased six broodmares and two female weanlings.

He returned a year later to the Bluegrass state and purchased a stallion prospect, Silver Cord, who would become the foundation for his early racing operation.

By the mid-1940’s Ellsworth had purchased a ranch in Ontario, Calif., and was making enough money that he set his sights on finding a real top stallion. That took him to England, where he didn’t get the horse he wanted, but he did get the sire of Swaps.
Name the horse Ellsworth wanted and the one he bought on his first overseas trip.

3. While the names Swaps and Nashua are today synonymous with the 1955 Kentucky Derby, in the months and weeks leading up to the race the media and horsemen were focused on Nashua, the previous year’s 2-year-old champion, and this bay colt, who was ranked one pound higher than Nashua on the 1954 Experimental Free Handicap.

For the Derby, Daily Racing Form listed the probable odds for this horse at 2-1, with Nashua as the 4-5 favorite, and Swaps as 8-1 third choice. Name the Experimental highweight for 1954.

4. Following his victory in the Kentucky Derby, Swaps rattled off three remarkable wins at Hollywood Park (including one world record), and then won the American Derby on the grass, setting a track record.

Meanwhile, Nashua also won four straight after the Derby – the Preakness, Belmont, Dwyer, and Arlington Classic. During this time, the clamoring was growing louder for the two to meet again. Hollywood Park officials were desperate for the match to be held at their track, but could never get the two camps to agree.

Finally, this noted racetrack owner got both sides to agree to a match at one of his tracks. Name the owner and racetrack where the greatly anticipated Nashua-Swaps match race took place.

5. Nashua garnered Horse of the Year honors in 1955, but the following year belonged to Swaps. He won 8 of his 10 starts in 1956, carried 130 pounds on seven occasions, and equaled or set seven track, American, and/or world records. (At that time, some tracks, including Hollywood Park, had an unwritten policy of assigning no more than 130 pounds in handicap races. By the end of the 1950’s, such policies were abandoned.)

While working out one morning, Swaps fractured his left hind leg and was retired. He entered stud with what William H. P. Robertson, editor of The Thoroughbred Record, called “the largest collection of recognized world records (five) in history.”

At stud, Swaps sired three American champions. Name them.

See the answers HERE.