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So there he was, all by himself except for Swale, looking suddenly far older than his 70 years—a drawn, frail, ashen man standing in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs with the cameras snapping, the pale wind blowing and the crowds surging toward him, calling his name. Trainer Woody Stephens held the reins with his left hand and patted Swale's chocolate nose with his right. For a long time Stephens seemed to linger in the circle with the colt, holding on to that fleeting moment as if he never wanted it to pass.
It was late Saturday afternoon and Swale had just won the 110th running of the Kentucky Derby. He'd snatched the lead going around the far turn, opened up two lengths at the top of the stretch and five by the time he got to midstretch, and then bounded home in a drive to win by 3� lengths over Coax Me Chad and 5� over At The Threshold. Swale paid his backers $8.80 to win as second choice in the 20-horse field. Althea, the California filly tepidly favored at 5-2, finished 19th, beaten by some 30 lengths.
This Derby victory was among the crowning moments of Stephens's 47-year career as a horse trainer, and in a sense the most dramatic of all, though he'd won the Derby with Cannonade in 1974. He could barely smile when it was all over, feeling as weak and ill as he did, but he waved his hand to those who shouted such things as "Swale carried the mail!" And "Great job, Woody!"
Stephens was still suffering from a bout with pneumonia, emphysema and exhaustion that had put him in a Louisville hospital from April 22 until the day before the race. When he walked into Swale's stall in the saddling paddock on Saturday, Stephens leaned back limply against a wall of the stall and simply watched as Mike Griffin, who was training Swale in Stephens's absence, hoisted on the saddle and cinched it up. Stephens was too tired to dress the colt himself. "This horse looks awful good," Woody said to Griffin as they shook hands. "Thank you." Griffin nodded. "He hasn't turned a hair," he said.
There were many such moments woven through this Kentucky Derby. Why, there was Swale's breeder and part owner, Seth Hancock, 34, the master of Claiborne Farm, striding into the pandemonium of the winner's circle ceremony amid the exultant embraces of the Hancock clan—41-year-old brother Arthur, the family maverick who co-owned and co-bred the 1982 Derby winner, Gato del Sol; sister Dell, 31; and their 69-year-old mother, Waddell, the widow of Bull Hancock. Bull built Claiborne into the breeding empire that exists today—the Paris, Ky. farm is among the finest thoroughbred nurseries in the world—and he wanted most of all to win the Derby, though he never did.
There was Laffit Pincay Jr., for years one of America's leading jockeys, who had ridden in 10 Derbys and finished second three times but never won. That fact had preyed on him. Bouncing into the winner's circle astride Swale, Pincay grinned madly and raised his fist—he'd finally done it, after all those years!—as if at last he'd thrown off the fear that had so haunted him, that he would retire having won every major American horse race, save the most important of all. There was Bill Shoemaker, one of Pincay's fastest friends, who had won three Derbys and finished ninth on Silent King in this one, embracing Pincay and then breaking into tears.
And oh, yes, there was Swale himself, the tough, game, hard-running son of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, who ultimately had all the goods when he was asked for them, while his more famous stablemate didn't. Leaving his stall in Barn 41 to attend this dance, Swale walked past the alertly inquiring Devil's Bag, the $36 million colt who'd been the Derby favorite until he mysteriously went backward in his form and was withdrawn five days before the race. Swale was a sort of substitute taking over in the big game, but he looked the part of a first-stringer. His sleek bay coat seemed almost black in the gray afternoon light, and he carried his fine neck with a slight bow. The colt moved to the racetrack like a cat, almost pantherlike in the way he walked.
"All's Swale that ends Swale," said Griffin, toasting Dell Hancock with champagne in the Churchill Downs Directors Room after the race. So it ended for everyone closely connected with this colt in this strange, wide-open Kentucky Derby.
Swale's run to the head of the field began less than nine weeks ago, on March 3 at Hialeah, when a healthy but overworked Stephens saddled Devil's Bag for the Flamingo. The Bag had been last year's undefeated 2-year-old champion, and by all considered judgments was destined to be one of the greatest horses that ever lived. He did everything so easily. The gate opened and he set sail.
Swale had to work for a living. He won $491,951 in 1983, but he was far less brilliant than Devil's Bag; Swale ground out his victories in long, bitter stretch battles that took him and jockey Eddie Maple right down to the wire. Last summer he won the Futurity at Belmont by a dirty nose, came back to win the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland by a head, then finished his season by winning the Young America at the Meadowlands by another hairy whisker. The Bag was the celebrity; Swale was largely ignored.