07/05/2006 12:00AM

Impossible shoes to fill in Gold Cup


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It would be worth the price of admission on Gold Cup day Saturday to enter Hollywood Park through the clubhouse gates, if only to pause for a moment before Albert Stewart's bronze statue of Swaps, in full flight under Bill Shoemaker, displayed against a marble wall that bears the names of all the Gold Cup winners. Genuflection is optional.

For all the great horses who have won the Hollywood Gold Cup - a list that begins with Seabiscuit and includes Citation, Round Table, Gallant Man, Native Diver, Ack Ack, Affirmed, Ferdinand, Best Pal, Cigar, and Skip Away - Swaps always tends to catch the eye.

Maybe it's because he carried 130 pounds and Bill Shoemaker to a track record of 1:58.60 in the 1956 version of the 1 1/4-mile race. Maybe it's because the Gold Cup was one of five victories in six starts made by Swaps during that 1956 Hollywood Park meeting. Or maybe it's simply because the mere idea of a horse like Swaps is so outrageous in these cautious times that it does a racing fan good to briefly savor the way it used to be.

As a physical specimen, Swaps was breathtaking from all angles - the perfect subject for statuary. William H. P. Robertson, in "The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America," describes Swaps as having "a sinuous grace few Thoroughbreds possess." Charles Hatton of the Daily Racing Form referred to Swaps as that "bronze, clipper-rigged colt from California." Reporting in the Los Angeles Times after yet another Swaps victory, columnist Braven Dyer passed on the ultimate compliment from a dazzled fan, who could only say, "That horse just ain't human."

Dr. Jock Jocoy, who for a time was the private vet for owner Rex Ellsworth, described the first time he beheld Swaps in a stall at Santa Anita Park, in this excerpt from his self-published memoir, "Racehorse Doctor":

"He was an imposing animal, chestnut colored with a white patch on his forehead separating intelligent and alert eyes. His extraordinary peripheral vision and acute hearing made him remarkably perceptive of the slightest movement, but he never showed a tinge of fear. If anything, he exuded confidence with his bold and commanding presence."

It has been 50 years since Swaps went postward in the 17th running of the Gold Cup on July 14, 1956. At that point in West Coast sports history, Rex Ellsworth's colt was easily one of the biggest attractions in town, right up there with the Rams of the NFL, USC football, and whoever was fighting at the Olympic Auditorium. In the Gold Cup, he would be facing a field that, under normal circumstances, should give any favorite the shakes.

Mister Gus was a 5-year-old heavyweight who had already won the 1956 San Antonio Handicap and would go on to defeat Nashua at level weights in the '56 Woodward Stakes. Bobby Brocato made his bones winning both the Santa Anita Handicap and the San Juan Capistrano that year. Porterhouse, the one-time 2-year-old champ and winner of the 1956 San Carlos, could boast an upset of Swaps in the Californian Stakes at Hollywood, taking advantage of what even Shoemaker conceded was a bonehead ride.

As it turned out, it was his right front heel that had the potential of giving Swaps the toughest battle. The right forefoot had given trainer Mesh Tenney chronic trouble, and now, as the Gold Cup approached, the heel was cracking and the ankle tender. In his memoirs, Jock Jocoy described their predicament.

"It was unlawful to treat a horse on race day, but I petitioned the stewards and official track vet for a waiver," Jocoy wrote. "With written approval from the California Horse Racing Board, I medicated his sore areas, and he came up busting to run."

With win betting only, Swaps was off at 15 cents on the dollar. The crowd of 55,268 was not disappointed. Swaps and Shoemaker stalked the early pace of Mister Gus, then opened four lengths in the stretch. As was his custom, Shoemaker geared down, winning by two lengths, in track-record time.

Swaps returned nine days later to win the Sunset Handicap, setting another track record for the 1 5/8 miles.

"As impressive as the Gold Cup was, the Sunset was even more unbelievable," said Bob Benoit, head of Hollywood Park publicity at the time. "I remember going down to the jocks' room after the race to interview Shoe. He couldn't unclench his hands, he'd been holding Swaps so hard."

Lava Man, the defending Gold Cup champ, is a nice horse (gelding, to be exact) and deserves all manner of credit for maintaining a high level of form during his well-managed 2006 campaign. He should be odds-on to win the Gold Cup again on Saturday, even though history says it's no slam dunk. Beyond Native Diver, a winner of three straight Gold Cups in the 1960's, no horse has ever taken the race more than once. Among the dozen who tried and failed were Kayak II, Colorado King, Quack, Ancient Title, Siphon and Gentlemen.

So it's okay if Lava Man turns out to be human after all. After all, there will never be another Swaps.