Updated on 05/02/2014 8:58AM

Swale's Derby still burns bright 30 years on

Doug Prather
Swale, on the walkover prior to his 1984 Kentucky Derby victory, is escorted by (left to right) groom Michael Klein, exercise rider Ronnie McKenzie and Claiborne Farm's Mike Griffin.

What makes one Kentucky Derby stand out as somebody’s favorite? Who was the horse, or what was it about his story, that stamped that memory indelibly in the mind and on the heart?

Your favorite Derby might be the first one you ever watched; it might be the first one you saw in person; or it might have been won by a horse you bet on, making you feel like the smartest person in the world. But the best kind of Derby memory, I think, is one that reaches far back, before the actual day. It’s more than a snapshot of the race itself—it’s a whole film that may have taken months to unfold.

For me, it’s not even close: My favorite Derby horse—my favorite horse of all time—was Swale, who won 30 years ago, in 1984.

He was bred and owned by Claiborne Farm, near Paris, Ky., and no Thoroughbred farm in this country is richer in history than Claiborne, which traces its beginnings to the early 1900s. Under the leadership of Arthur Hancock Sr. and then his son Arthur Jr.—known as Bull—Claiborne rose to the top of the breeding industry, importing influential stallions who would reinvigorate and reshape the American Thoroughbred while the Hancock family forged partnerships with some of the most powerful owners in the country.

The height of their success came in the form of Bold Ruler, owned and raced by Gladys Phipps. A son of the Irish-bred stallion Nasrullah, Bold Ruler was the 1957 Horse of the Year and one of the most influential sires in American history. His greatest son, of course, was Secretariat, winner of the 1973 Triple Crown.

In June 1982, nine years after Secretariat’s legendary 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes, I had just moved to Lexington, Ky., to work for The Thoroughbred Record. My parents were coming for a visit, and I wanted to take them to one of the big breeding farms. Claiborne, where Secretariat had retired to stud after his racing career, was the obvious choice.

We checked in at the office and started walking down the path to the stallion barns, where I could see a small crowd around a big-barreled, thick-necked chestnut horse with three white stockings and a thin blaze.

My heart started beating faster and I said, “I think that’s him,” as I tried to hurry my parents along, afraid that we would miss our audience with the greatest racehorse in American history.

We didn’t miss him, though, and the stud groom even let me tentatively stroke Secretariat’s famous face while my parents clicked photos.

That day, I got it. From the polished brass nameplates on each stallion’s stall, engraved with the unbroken lineage of greatness—Bold Ruler-Secretariat—to the weathered headstones of a few favored horses who were buried in the little graveyard just outside the office, Claiborne had an aura no other farm could touch.

The following October, I had just arrived at Keeneland on a bright Saturday afternoon, expecting to do nothing but enjoy the sunshine and bet a few races at one of the country’s most beautiful tracks, when I ran into my best friend from work. She was supposed to write about that day’s feature, the Breeders’ Futurity for 2-year-olds, but she wasn’t feeling well, so I told to her to go home; I would cover the race for her.

The even-money favorite was a dark bay by Seattle Slew out of Tuerta, by Forli; he was owned by Claiborne, trained by Hall of Famer Woody Stephens, ridden by Eddie Maple, and was coming off a nose victory in the Futurity at Belmont Park. I don’t really remember the race itself, but I can still see the tall, raw-boned, nearly black colt circling the walking ring—the equine version of an ugly duckling.

Swale won the Breeders’ Futurity by a head, and had five victories from seven starts that year, including four graded stakes, but he wasn’t even close to being the champion 2-year-old. That honor went to the undefeated Devil’s Bag, another colt in Stephens’s talent-packed shedrow.

Devil’s Bag was faster, flashier, and was already being heralded at the best colt since Spectacular Bid by The New York Times’s turf writer, Steven Crist. Steve was so excited about Devil’s Bag that he talked the Times into sending him to Florida to chronicle the colt’s every move on his road to the 1984 Kentucky Derby, but on March 3, “the Bag” hit a very big bump in that road, finishing a distant fourth in the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah at odds of 3-10.

Four days later, Swale won his first start of the year, the Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park, by eight lengths in 1:22 1/5. It was the first time he had won any race with that kind of authority, but it wasn’t just the margin of victory and the fast time that were eye-popping. Swale was looking like a different horse, literally.

Ronnie McKenzie, his exercise rider, later described the metamorphosis:

“A good 2-year-old can come down here for the winter, and you give them some time off—slacken off on them for a month or two—and that’s when they really blossom.

“Swale was an ugly 2-year-old—he was tall, but there wasn’t anything to him; he was that skinny,” he said, holding up an index finger. “But at 3, man, he was gorgeous. Everybody was talking all the time about Devil’s Bag, but I said, ‘This is the horse that’s going to win the Derby.’ ”

The story of these two stablemates was becoming even more intriguing because Devil’s Bag, owned by Hickory Tree Stable, had been syndicated for $36 million in December. That deal had been orchestrated by Bull Hancock’s younger son Seth, who had been running Claiborne since his father’s death in 1972 and had made history by syndicating Secretariat for a record $6.08 million. Bull Hancock’s will had recommended that the farm stop racing its own horses and concentrate on breeding, but under Seth’s direction, Claiborne horses had recently returned to the track—and Swale was from the first crop to carry the Claiborne colors again.

Ten days after Swale’s sparkling 3-year-old debut, he fizzled at 2-5 in the Fountain of Youth, running third—but then he rebounded to win the Florida Derby under a new rider, Laffit Pincay Jr. Good race, bad race, good race. . . . It was a pattern that would repeat unfailingly that spring.

As for how to get the 2-year-old champion back on track, Stephens was scrambling. He mapped out a plan to run in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, but when bad weather intervened, he rerouted both Devil’s Bag and Swale to Keeneland.

While they were there, I grabbed every chance I could to watch Swale train. The scrawny juvenile I remembered from the Breeders’ Futurity had grown into a sleek black monster, and I couldn’t get enough of him, whether he was breezing, galloping, or just cooling out. During those early mornings on the backstretch, I frequently bumped into Steven Crist, who had followed Devil’s Bag from Florida to New York to Kentucky, and we would banter about whose horse was better.

On April 17, Swale floundered in the slop to lose his final Derby prep, the Lexington Stakes, by eight lengths at 1-10. I was crushed, and when Devil’s Bag won a seven-furlong allowance race by 15 lengths two days later, my faith was further shaken—but not my devotion. On the night of the Blue Grass Stakes dinner at Keeneland, a traditional prerace celebration, Steve invited me to join him and Bill Nack of Sports Illustrated for a dawn reconnaissance mission: We would meet at 4:30 a.m. and make the 90-minute drive to Churchill Downs to watch Devil’s Bag breeze in preparation for the Derby Trial, then returnto Lexington in time for me to get to work.

I said yes immediately, because Swale would be working out, too.

The next morning, we were nearing Churchill just as the sky was beginning to lighten, and as the Twin Spires came into view, Steve said something that seemed out of character for him: “For the first time this year, I feel like there’s really going to be a Derby.”

But there was no Derby for Devil’s Bag. He won the Derby Trial, but looked so unimpressive that he was not even entered in the Run for the Roses. That left it up to Swale to salvage what had turned into a rough spring for Woody Stephens, who had been hospitalized with pneumonia in mid-April.

On the walk over from the backstretch, Swale stepped through the gap onto the main track with a big, eager stride, his head high, ears pricked, eyes bright and alert—but he didn’t wash out, pull on the lead shank, or spook as he moved smoothly along the outside rail with the crowd just a few feet away, people yelling as he went, “Who is it?” “Number 10!” “Swale . . . . It’s Swale!!”

While Swale went to the paddock to be saddled, I made my way up to the press box and then onto the roof, the best vantage point at Churchill Downs. I was breathing hard—but not from the climb—and my binoculars were unsteady as I watched Swale load into the first stall in the auxiliary gate. He broke quickly and cleanly, angling over to take a stalking position just outside the leaders heading into the clubhouse turn, then sat in a perfect spot behind the favorite, Althea, a champion filly who was coming off a seven-length win over Pine Circle and Gate Dancer in the Arkansas Derby.

Swale tracked her down the backstretch and cruised up alongside as they leaned into the far turn, then began pulling away and opening up effortlessly as he swung into the stretch. When his margin widened to five lengths, I couldn’t help yelling, “He’s gonna have to fall down to lose!” But the racing gods did not punish me for unintentionally taunting them, and Swale won by 3 1/4 lengths, giving Claiborne its first, and to this day, only, Kentucky Derby winner.

Swale continued his good-race, bad-race pattern and lost the Preakness two weeks later, then won the Belmont, giving Stephens the third of an unmatchable five straight victories in that classic. Eight days later, the colt dropped dead outside Woody’s barn just after returning from a routine morning gallop. An extensive autopsy was largely inconclusive, revealing nothing more than a tiny patch of scar tissue on Swale’s heart. He was sent home and buried in the graveyard at Claiborne, just outside the farm office.

Devil’s Bag never raced again after the Derby Trial. X-rays turned up a knee chip, and he was retired to stud at Claiborne, where he spent the rest of his life.

The following year, I returned to Louisville for Derby Week and attended the opening of the new Kentucky Derby museum with my future husband, Steven Crist. As the lights went down and the new high-tech slide show flashed up on the 360-degree screen, with the sound seeming to come from everywhere at once, a huge lump formed in my throat when I heard the unmistakable Kentucky twang of Woody Stephens. I also recognized the voice of Claiborne Farm’s manager, John Sosby. Although the Derby slide show encompassed the entire experience of being at Churchill on the first Saturday in May, its producers had chosen to use the previous year’s winner as their focal point.

The show rolled on, with archival photos and race calls of some of the greatest Derbies streaming by in rapid succession, and I knew what was coming—but I still wasn’t prepared for the effect of once again seeing that huge black colt in the golden-yellow silks flashing on the screens above me and hearing track announcer Mike Battaglia call out, “It’s all Swale!”

When the house lights came back up, I was wishing they would have stayed down longer as I furtively swiped at my tears—but as it turned out, a lot of people were doing the same.

I faithfully went to the Derby museum year after year to see the slide show—and then came the day when I was stunned to see that Swale’s images on the screen had been supplanted by those of another winner.

I was indignant at first, but hey, I guess it was only fair—and I’m sure that the Kentucky Derby of 1988—the one where a gigantic roan filly named Winning Colors barely held off the late charge of Claiborne Farm’s Forty Niner—gave someone else the Derby memory of a lifetime.