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In many ways the tense excitement that accompanied the matching, the running and the unexpected aftermath of the Swaps-Nashua encounter at Washington Park (see preceding pages) reflects the whole picture of Thoroughbred racing in the U.S. during 1955. For it was a year of general excitement, a season of genuinely noteworthy performances. Before admission turnstiles stop clicking on the last day of this month the official records will show that America's No. 1 paid spectator sport will have attracted close to 30 million fans in the 24 states which legalize pari-mutuel betting. Those fans will have bet over 2 billion dollars on some 26,000 horses running in about 31,000 races.
But long after the statistical records have been read, noted and forgotten by many the memory of the match race will linger on. Purely as a horse race, the Swaps-Nashua affair could not, perhaps, compare with such thrillers as Nashua's victory by a neck over Summer Tan in the Wood Memorial or Helioscope's margin of a head over High Gun in the Suburban Handicap. Yet there was a naturally inspired element of sheer drama as Swaps and Nashua walked quietly into the Washington Park starting gate to settle an argument of supremacy—an argument which had managed in the weeks before the race to find its way into the homes of sport fans around the world. The drama did not end when Nashua, under one of the fiercest driving rides ever staged by Eddie Arcaro, left Swaps after a mile and won by six and a half lengths. It hung heavy in the air between New York and California for days and even weeks as the analysts probed for explanations of Swaps's sudden reversal of form. When it was revealed that Swaps had re-injured a foot, which had given his stable cause to worry intermittently throughout his brilliant West Coast racing career, the news served for some as a handy trumpet with which to proclaim Nashua's victory hollow and meaningless. From the winner's camp came back the retort that Swaps must have been sound on match-race day, for no unsound horse—regardless of heart and courage—could have run virtually head and head with Nashua for the first mile. This much is known: Nashua won on his own merits and on the combined merits of a jockey and trainer who had no peers in 1955. This too is known: Rex Ellsworth, owner of Swaps, displayed the admirable traits of a true sportsman in agreeing to a match race in the first place. His horse, already in the role of 3-year-old champion, had nothing to gain, everything to lose by accepting the challenge of Nashua. Ellsworth was so worried over Swaps's foot that on the eve of the race he phoned a friend in California to express his concern.
In any case, all was well with Nashua, and the following afternoon, as he won the Race of the Year, he quite logically set himself up for the honor which officially befell him this week: being named Horse of the Year by a majority of the 33 editors, correspondents and handicappers voting in the annual poll of The Morning Telegraph and Daily Racing Form . Nashua received 22 votes to eight for High Gun, his conqueror in the Sysonby, and three for Swaps. The Belair Stud colt's superiority in his own 3-year-old division was even more one-sided as 29 of the 33 experts voted for him and the remaining four stuck with Swaps. Voting also on a more encompassing 5-2-1 basis, these two far outdistanced the only other 3-year-old colts to get a call: Traffic Judge, Saratoga and Summer Tan.
Nashua made history in 1955 by setting a new one-year earnings record of $752,550 with 10 victories in 12 starts. His exploits, seen by millions through the medium of television, put Nashua on the same lofty pedestal to which only one horse before him—Native Dancer—had been elevated. This week his public, while reading an announcement that Swaps has recovered from his foot operation and will be ready for a Santa Anita winter campaign, was still wondering what lay ahead for Nashua and hoping he would be given his deserved chance to eclipse Citation's all-time earning record. Following the recent death of his owner, William Woodward Jr., Nashua has been turned out in Kentucky, awaiting the final decision as to the disposition of the stable—a decision which will reveal whether Nashua goes to Hialeah or possibly to the sales ring.
The very structure of American racing, with an accent which lays heavy stress on the classic stakes (including the Triple Crown) for 3-year-olds, tends occasionally during the long season to overemphasize the importance of the leading sophomore events. Thus it is often the case that, unless the other divisions boast an outstanding racer, performances in those ranks are all but forgotten until, at year's end, one suddenly discovers many accredited champions just waiting to be crowned. The naming of these champions this week by some of the sport's most proficient and knowing observers was, however, no simple task. The voters did not allow themselves to be swayed purely by figures of victories and purses. If they did they would not have selected the King Ranch's High Gun (the 3-year-old champion of 1954) as the leading handicap horse of 1955. High Gun, astutely trained by Max Hirsch, won in fact only three of his seven races this year, but the deciding factor in his favor was undoubtedly that in one of these performances, the Sysonby, he gave Nashua five pounds and then proceeded to fly from dead last to win a head decision over Jet Action in the very last stride—with Nashua another three and a half lengths behind. Runners-up to High Gun were Helioscope, who twice defeated the King Ranch color-bearer, and Social Outcast, a sort of modern-day Exterminator, who managed during the course of a highly successful season to face the starter 22 times. He won eight and picked up earnings of $390,775.
If there was any outright confusion at the polls, it appeared to have centered over the selection of the year's top 2-year-old colt. And here again, with their minds on performance rather than earnings, the experts swung to Needles, the Florida-bred son of Ponder who won six races and $129,805. His closest competitor was Career Boy, while behind these two came the Garden State winner Prince John, the Futurity winner Nail and Swoon's Son, the sensation of the Chicago season. They all had' moments of brilliance this year. Needles, Prince John and Nail are all being pointed for the Flamingo at Hialeah and the Florida Derby at Gulfstream, and from their winter competition one may emerge with a decisive edge on form when the new 3-year-olds are asked to extend themselves to the full mile-and-a-quarter Derby distance.
The distaff side of racing, unfortunately, seldom receives the recognition that comes to the colts. This year the top honors went to a 3-year-old daughter of Princequillo. Misty Morn was not only chosen best in her own division over High Voltage but also the leading handicap filly or mare over Parlo. Misty Morn, who, like Nashua, is trained by 81-year-old Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, may be another good example of a champion being selected by virtue of a sensational performance in one particular race. And, as in the case of High Gun impressing the voters in his last start, Misty Morn made the last of her 22 outings of the year one of the season's great highlights. In the mile-and-five-eighths Gallant Fox Handicap at Jamaica she defeated proven distance runners and broke—by two fifths of a second—the track record held jointly by such notable performers as Stymie and Counterpoint. The leading 2-year-old filly was Doubledogdare, a bay daughter of Double Jay who annexed, among her six victories, one division of the National Stallion Stakes, the Colleen, the Matron and the Alcibiades. Her only close competitor in the voting was Nasrina, who accounted for the world's richest juvenile filly stakes, the Gardenia, at Garden State.
Honors came to other horses too. The champion grass runner was the English-bred 4-year-old gelding St. Vincent, who last winter at Santa Anita took distance triumphs in both the San Gabriel and the San Juan Capistrano.
The sprinter title was awarded to another successful California campaigner, the 5-year-old Berseem, who, although only raced 10 times, won four of those starts in good times (six furlongs in 1:09[4/5] or better on three occasions) with little trouble. His runner-up was Swaps, who, before the ill-fated journey to Washington Park, had set a world record of 1:40[2/5] for a mile and a sixteenth at Hollywood Park. With the steeplechasers it was a landslide vote for Neji (SI, Nov. 14), the Temple Gwathmey and Grand National winner who runs for Mrs. Ogden Phipps and is trained by her brother, G. H. (Pete) Bostwick.
As the racing year of 1955 ran its course before enthusiastic audiences who bet more money than ever before (see wagering and attendance charts below), the prospects for 1956 were good. Track management everywhere is busy improving facilities with which to attract even larger crowds next year. And whether or not the champions of 1955 return to defend their laurels (only one of them, High Gun, has definitely retired from racing), the history of horse racing shows there have always been new champions to crown. New champions, like old ones, will keep the excitement alive.