Updated on 05/31/2013 2:49PM

Jay Hovdey: Swaps broke the mold in his Californian win


It will be difficult to worry too much over the loss of many of Hollywood Park’s stakes events, now that they’ve each arrived at their final runnings. Most of them will be remembered fondly for their occasional renewals of merit, when good horses rose to the moment and left a good taste. But a fair number of them already have undergone changes in name and distance, jumbling history in the process. And it is impossible to overlook the impact of alterations made to the physical space, when the main oval was lengthened to nine furlongs in 1984, and then when dirt was replaced by a synthetic surface in 2006.

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Ah, but The Californian is different. The Californian is special. The Californian is a race of which Californians can be rightfully proud. When The Californian is run for the final time Saturday – with its field led by Liaison, Clubhouse Ride, and last year’s runner-up, Kettle Corn – it will be appropriate to mourn its passing.

For its first 26 runnings, from 1954 through 1979, The Californian was pristine in its form as the perfect synthesis of a contemporary Thoroughbred contest. In fact, it was ahead of its time. Weights were assigned based on allowances instead of a handicap. Three-year-olds were invited to compete. At 1 1/16 miles around two accommodating turns, the best sprinters were encouraged to give it a try, while quality distance types were challenged to step up their game and give chase.

Also, it was worth the trouble. The 1954 running of The Californian was one of only eight North American races open to all comers worth $100,000 or more. The result set the standard. Lightning fast Imbros – a horse described by Joe Estes as “ignorant of the fact that man is the master race” – defeated 1954 Kentucky Derby winner Determine and equaled the world’s record in the process.

One year later, Swaps was still flush from winning the Kentucky Derby when he defeated the top 4-year-olds Determine and Mister Gus in The Californian. Swaps not only shattered the 1 1/16-mile world record in the process, he also upstaged his Derby rival Nashua, who loitered in New York that same afternoon, beating mere 3-year-olds in the Belmont Stakes. Estes was not the only turf writer smitten by the red colt’s performance in The Californian.

“If there was any remaining doubt as to the eligibility of Swaps for a place among the best horses of the century it was erased in [The Californian] of June 11,” he wrote.

Uneasy lies the head . . . and all that jazz. Swaps and Bill Shoemaker got cocky on the lead in The Californian of 1956 and allowed 5-year-old Porterhouse, a former 2-year-old champ, to sneak past for the win. In 1957, it was the 3-year-old Round Table who tried to beat his elders, and he almost pulled it off, splitting the accomplished Social Climber and Find at the finish. Round Table was back for The Californian in 1958, by then on his way to the Hall of Fame, but under 130 pounds he could not catch the fleet Seaneen.

Year after year, the best continued to show up for The Californian. Hillsdale, the most underrated older horse of the era (probably because he was from Indiana), beat Amerigo in 1959. First Balcony, freakishly fast, gave Mel Stute his first major victory in the 1961 version. Viking Spirit, a brilliant sprinter-miler, defeated Belmont Stakes winner Quadrangle in 1965, while the longshots Travel Orb and Biggs, both with Northwestern roots, gave jockey Bill Harmatz back-to-back wins in The Californians of 1966 and 1967.

Then came Dr. Fager. The Californian of 1968 was the second stop on the Good Doctor’s incomparable 1968 campaign, which resulted in titles as champion sprinter, turf horse, older male, and Horse of the Year. It also was his biggest payday of the season, and he earned the prize by carrying 130 pounds and dusting off 13 opponents, including champion mare Gamely and the world-class sprinter Kissin’ George.

This should have been an impossible act to follow, and it was. But The Californian continued to showcase the best older horses possible, with winners like Nodouble (1969), Cougar II (1971-72), Quack (1973-74), Ancient Title (1975-76), Crystal Water (1977) and J.O. Tobin (1978). Yes, they were mostly either champions or Hall of Famers. Or in the case of Cougar, both.

The final winner of The Californian in its original form was Affirmed, who was, by the summer of 1979, a 4-year-old in full. After a sputtering start to the season the golden colt had won the Strub Stakes and the Santa Anita Handicap at 10 furlongs. He gave Elmendorf’s solid middle-distance horse Syncopate 16 pounds in The Californian and won by five after scorching to the lead around the first turn. Affirmed followed The Californian with wins in the Hollywood Gold Cup, a Belmont allowance prep, the Woodward, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup to be Horse of the Year for a second straight season.

The Californian could have ended right there without a complaint. In 1980 Bud Delp got the distance changed to nine furlongs as a condition for an appearance by Spectacular Bid, and the Bid cut loose with a 1:45.80 under 130 pounds. Subsequent runnings at 1 1/8 miles have been won by the likes of Desert Wine, Sunday Silence, The Wicked North, Tinners Way, Lava Man, and Game On Dude, which is still a pretty good run.

Still, it might be a good time on Saturday to visit the graceful bronze sculpture of Swaps mounted to the marble wall inside Hollywood Park clubhouse entrance and imagine, of the nine Hollywood stakes races he won, that this was exactly how he looked at the end of The Californian.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of North American races worth $100,000 or more in 1954. There were eight such races, not seven.