The Southern California sky was cloudless, the temperature was in the balmy 60s, and a benign sun shone down on the palm-girdled oval of the Santa Anita race track. In the stands 49,000 people watched in absorbed concentration as the 14 3-year-olds paraded to the post for the seventh race. For the seventh at Santa Anita last Saturday was more than just another horse race: it was the $100,000 Santa Anita Derby, the first of 1955's series of classic tests of 3-year-old horseflesh.
May's Kentucky Derby and Preakness, June's Belmont Stakes still lie weeks ahead. But—between then and now—horsemen and racing fans everywhere will be sitting in judgment on a whole new generation of glistening bays, browns, grays and chestnuts. At Santa Anita last week the 49,000 were out to watch the youngsters measure each other for purpose and heart.
As the horses moved to the starting gate the crowd scanned their favorites: the Calumet Farms' colt Trentonian, sired by the great Bull Lea and affectionately tagged by Calumet trainer Jimmy Jones, "an honest little fella"; the powerful but willful Blue Ruler, owned by the wives of Texas Millionaires Clint Murchison and Woffort Cain; and Blue Ruler's talented stablemate Jean's Joe.
But, California being California, most of the 49,000 had a special affection for a golden chestnut with the unprepossessing name of Swaps. California Owner Rex Ellsworth not only maintains his stables at the Ellsworth Ranch in California but Swaps himself is California-bred and trained. You have to delve back to 1922—and the great brown Morvich—to find a California-bred horse that ever won the Kentucky Derby. Californians devotedly watch for signs and portents of another.
When the Santa Anita Derby was over last Saturday, it was Swaps in the winner's circle, and Californians had a gleam in the eye.
Swaps was second choice in the betting and was supposed to be a shade inferior in natural talent to the Murcain Stable's Blue Ruler. But Blue Ruler finished a rather dismal third, thanks to the fact that he has trouble keeping his mind on his work and appeared to think the whole thing a proper lark. Swaps, on the other hand, seems to be as heartily conscientious about his work as his owner Rex Ellsworth and his trainer Meshach Tenney, who are devout Mormons both. Swaps allowed himself no folderol. His mind was on business all the way.
Surprisingly, after the race, Trainer Tenney and Owner Ellsworth gravely allowed that Swaps owed his success altogether to the good life and holding the good thought. Bequeath, a 3-year-old stablemate of Swaps which ran far down the track (fifth), is really much better when the devil isn't in him, they said. Unfortunately, it is in him most of the time and Tenney confided: "Bequeath outruns Swaps, and if he had Swaps's willingness and ambition he would be a great horse. But he isn't as good-natured."
Blue Ruler is good-natured enough—till he gets on the track. Then he appears to regard the jockey as an unnecessary annoyance on an otherwise perfect afternoon for an outing, like a governess at a dance, something to give the slip to. Even the great Willie Shoemaker couldn't keep his horse's mind on the main chance and confessed sadly after the race, "I had a helluva time. He ran all over the place. He was awful green, he was awful green. At the three-eighth pole he was trying to duck in behind horses." Next to jumping shadows, playing hide-and-go-seek with the rest of the field is probably the racing technique least likely to succeed. Railbirds think Blue Ruler, which has raced only twice since last September, is pampered too much.
Blue Ruler, of course, may mend his ways. There may be nothing wrong with him that hard knocks in competition with a few four-footed Dead End kids won't cure. Last year's Santa Anita Derby winner, Determine, which went on to win the Kentucky Derby, was no such pampered darling and had already had enough racing for the year by the time he won the Santa Anita 3-year-old classic. But Determine, owned by an automobile dealer of modest circumstances as far as horse owners go, was running for the rent. Blue Ruler doesn't really need the money and his swollen-walleted owners picked him up at the same time they picked up a few other valuable pieces of bric-a-brac, such as the New York Central Railroad.
Swaps was not born with a silver bit in his mouth. Rex Ellsworth was a working Arizona cowboy who was in the saddle 16 hours a day when he started his stable with a 50-dollar mare he wasn't sure he wanted. This is the first $100,000 race he has won.