As horse races go, the $57,750 Westerner at Hollywood Park last Saturday wasn't much. The 45,544 who showed up at the sun-bathed, pond-bedecked race track were there for the same reason tourists are at Niagara Falls—to see a wonder of nature. In this case it was a red-gold, 3-year-old race horse, Swaps, who can run faster and farther than any California-bred horse and whom Californians are beginning to brag about out loud as one of the all-time runners of the American turf.
When the great colt walked on the track, the announcer chastely introduced him merely as the Kentucky Derby winner. But when the race was over, Hal Moore was as recklessly superlative as other Californians. "Ladies and gentlemen, in the winner's circle, Swaps, California's candidate for Horse-of-the-Year, the incomparable Swaps!" In the press box veteran turf-writers were of a mood to hurl their adjectives even higher in the air.
"Horse-of-the-Year! Hell, he's the horse of 25 years—maybe more." Even the more cautious, like the Los Angeles Examiner's Maurice Bernard, found themselves shaking their heads to marvel: "Did you ever see anything like that?"
Few Californians could say they had. When the bell rang and sent the horses stampeding out of the gate, Swaps even did that better than his opposition. The horses struggling in his wake never could seriously press him. "He tried to run, but I never did let him go," Jockey Willie Shoemaker confessed.
In spite of Shoemaker's restraining hands, Swaps won by six lengths. His time, 2:00 3/5, was only four-fifths of a second off Noor's track record. He ran the first mile in track record-tying time of 1:34 4/5. Second at the final was the overmatched claimer, Fabulous Vegas, but third was Jean's Joe, a Nasrullah colt once considered serious opposition for Swaps, who chased Swaps to the wire in the Santa Anita Derby. Of the $192,093 bet on the race Saturday, all but $35,059 was bet on Swaps.
Around Hollywood Park they are no longer asking whether Swaps is better than Nashua—it's whether he's as good as Man o' War. But the race was more than just a triumph for Swaps. It was further convincing proof that a pair of Arizona cowboys have not only crashed the select circle of championship horse breeders, they have temporarily taken it over.
Thoroughbred breeding has been thought to be pretty much the domain of the big rich—the Aga Khans, the Klebergs, the Alfred Vanderbilts. Never, outside of a Hollywood horse opera, has an unlikelier character than Rex C. Ellsworth come forward to beat the well-heeled at their own costly game. Not a reckless man and one you would never accuse of gambling, Ellsworth nevertheless seemed in the view of many to be throwing his last precious blue chips in the pot when he went to England in 1948 and bought Swaps's sire, Khaled, from the Aga Khan for $160,000.
The point was, Ellsworth and his trainer, Meshach Adams Tenney, a slender, patient little man who had been foreman of the Ellsworth family ranch in Arizona, felt they knew the secret of championship breeding. All they lacked was superior bloodlines.
At first glance the Ellsworth-Tenney ranch at Chino, 50 miles on the desert side of Los Angeles, seems hardly the place to raise Horses-of-the-Year, or even thoroughbreds. It looks more like a stockyard than a blueblood breeding ground. Its 300 acres are cut up into 32 long, narrow pens—each 756 feet long by 132 feet wide and each encased not in white wood but iron wire. Ellsworth engineered his farm so that one of his cowboys could get a horse from any part of the complex in one continuous ride and lead him up a system of areaways directly to the ranch's one loading ramp without having to open a gate. "We don't have to send the cavalry out to round up horses here," says Ellsworth, a laconic man who talks even less than Tenney (see p. 58). "One cowboy can load a van full in a short time."