Good horses," Rex Ellsworth often used to say, "can be raised anywhere. Shucks, you don't need the spit and polish of those Kentucky farms with their fancy white fences and brass name-plates on the stall doors. I'll prove to those fellows that I can do just as good down at my ranch in Chino."
And, for a while, Ellsworth did. The lanky, stern-faced, wrinkled cowboy out of Arizona was a devout Mormon who neither drank nor smoked. But from the day in 1933 when he and his brother Heber rolled out of Lexington, Ky. in a broken-down truck containing the six mares and two weanlings they had purchased with their life savings—all $600 of it—Ellsworth gambled that a dynasty could be developed at his ranch in Chino, Calif. that would make the rest of the world forget Kentucky, Newmarket, Chantilly. No white fences at Chino. Wire would do fine; some of it barbed at that. No lush bluegrass either. Ellsworth used a feed mill that spat out pellets laced with molasses and kelp.
After the war he went looking for a stallion. He had his eye set on Nasrullah, but Bull Hancock beat him to it. He settled instead for a somewhat windy son of Hyperion named Khaled, and when Khaled's son Swaps won the 1955 Kentucky Derby over Nasrullah's son Nashua, Ellsworth and his partner, trainer and buddy, Mish Tenney, were sitting on top of the world. That was one of racing's best-publicized summers. A posed picture that appeared in LIFE of Tenney sleeping in Swaps' stall gained the cowboy duo millions of admirers, and it didn't hurt a bit that the beaten Derby favorite Nashua was owned by the wealthy New York socialite William Woodward Jr. and trained by the venerable Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, who already had Triple Crown victories by Gallant Fox and Omaha to his credit.
Another meeting between the two became a must when Swaps returned to the West after the Derby, leaving the Preakness and Belmont as routine victories for Nashua. A match race was arranged for Aug. 31, 1955 at Chicago's Washington Park, and although the buildup was loud and mighty the race itself was anti-climactic. Swaps, who ran most of his career on three good legs, had aggravated an injury to his fourth, but Ellsworth gambled that Jockey Bill Shoemaker could get him home in front of Nashua and Eddie Arcaro. This time the roll went against Ellsworth. Arcaro gave The Shoe a riding lesson, and Nashua galloped home a winner by more than six lengths. Ten years later Ellsworth admitted to me, "Swaps should never have run that day, but after all the publicity and the way all those people came from everywhere to see the race, we just didn't want to disappoint anyone." He neglected to comment on the dangers of running a lame horse. Swaps could have been seriously crippled, perhaps fatally.
Another leg injury a year later, in the fall in New Jersey, nearly did kill him, and the courageous chestnut spent weeks at Garden State suspended awkwardly in a sling until healed sufficiently to return to Chino. The life-saving sling, incidentally, was suggested by Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons.
But Ellsworth and Tenney had little time for Swaps, other than to sell him out of the state of California to John and Dorothy Galbreath for $2 million. (He died in Kentucky a couple of years ago at the age of 20.) The last time I saw Swaps at Chino was during the winter of 1957. Liz Whitney Tippett and I stopped by one afternoon to see how his recovery was getting along. He was out of the sling by then, and Ellsworth took us into his dirty, unkempt stall. When Rex turned on the one overhead light, Swaps blinked and backed off at the sight of the two newcomers standing at his owner's side. Ellsworth grabbed him by his mane and directed a hard right-hand punch to the middle of the horse's face. "That," he said gruffly, "will teach you to mind your manners."
Ellsworth's empire was building, but on unsteady foundations. He assembled more than 200 broodmares at Chino, many of them from England, Ireland and France. He thought he was becoming a great friend of the late Aly Khan, but Aly played him for a sucker by selling him mostly well-bred but cast-off mares. He acquired a good stallion in Nigromante, the sire of Candy Spots, along with a few bad ones, including Toulouse Lautrec. On the track, where people and breeders notice, he was winning. He won with Terrang, Candy Spots (who captured the 1963 Preakness), The Scoundrel, Olden Times and Prove It. Only mighty Calumet Farm has ever won more at Santa Anita than the $353,560 Ellsworth raked in during the 1960-61 meeting. Tenney still ranks ninth among all trainers who ever saddled a horse at Santa Anita.
But Ellsworth, like all impulsive speculators, often played his hands badly, sometimes unfortunately so. A few days after The Scoundrel was sold for $500,000, the horse turned up lame, which did nothing for Ellsworth's reputation. The Chino operation was being run on a shoestring, and rumors about the breeding procedures there reportedly once prompted racing security agents to slip in disguised as grooms and laborers. At least one Eastern mare shipped to Chino to be bred returned home diseased, and other matings were so poorly authenticated that some worried broodmare owners began to have nagging doubts as to just who was the actual sire of the latest foal.
This was probably the beginning of Rex Ellsworth's long flirtation with disaster. From the time he first borrowed $160,000 from a bank to buy Khaled—and despite the money he won with Swaps ($848,900) and the others—he was building up a "paper" fortune and living a life of continual borrow-and-pay-back, borrow-and-pay-back. As a Mormon, he tithed to the church. He could have used a church tithe to him.
Ellsworth turned to the East and new associates in Kentucky. He moved Candy Spots, Prove It and Olden Times to the bluegrass country, where, he said, they would be more available to the better Eastern broodmares. Yet his partnership with Dr. Arnold Pessin, a Lexington veterinarian, was an unhappy one. They were unsuccessful in attempts to buy Elizabeth Arden's Maine Chance Farm (which went instead to the University of Kentucky), and after they bought another farm, with Dr. Pessin's money, they had a falling out over financial matters. Pessin eventually became sole owner of the place and Ellsworth lost all chance to profit from it. Mixed in with the bad luck came an occasional good roll of the dice. He bought a colt in Europe named Prince Royal II, and a month later, in his second start for Ellsworth, Prince Royal II won $223,000 as he captured the prestigious Prix de l' Arc de Triomphe.