The prosperous state of California is inhabited by men and women with almost unlimited energy, a willingness to learn and, most important of all, the desire to succeed. The fact that most of their horsemen down through the years have been on the wrong end of far too many jokes—mostly originating in Kentucky and directed at the supposed inadequacy of California-breds as desirable racing and breeding stock—has served only to stimulate the already strong and typical Californian desire to gain recognition. The time has come for a serious re-examination of the facts.
In the first place, Western racing is by no means limited to Hollywood Park and Santa Anita, which is all that many Easterners can see when they look down their noses. There are some 26 tracks for Thoroughbred racing located west of Denver, including six major tracks in California. California, of course, is the big apple in this widely scattered orchard and the Golden State has shown some amazing progress in the right direction. For example, California, in direct contrast to Kentucky, had virtually no Thoroughbred breeding industry as late as 1933. And yet last year 18% of all U.S.-bred stakes winners in this country were bred in California—putting the state second only to Kentucky and way ahead of Virginia and Maryland. Five of the seven leading U.S. breeders in 1955 operate at least partly in California.
Statistics do not always convince skeptics, but the inescapable facts are that America's newest top breeder is a Californian and that a California-bred 4-year-old of his might well be one of the greatest race horses ever seen. The man is a former cowpuncher named Rex Ellsworth, his horse a long-bodied golden chestnut with the unimaginative name of Swaps. These two individuals—with the help of nearly 500 other active members of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association and their horses—have put Western racing on the map to stay.
A few years ago, Ellsworth and his fellow Mormon partner-trainer Mish Tenney were pointed out as typical California eccentrics who obstinately rejected the axiom that a few hundred square miles of bluegrass was the best place in all of America in which to raise good race horses. Then came Swaps.
We can return to Swaps a little later. Meanwhile dismiss the impression that these two are the only Westerners engaged in racing in a big way.
Actually, there were a few active California breeders way before the turn of the century. These men and their successors may have lacked a good deal of the professional know-how as well as the superior stock of their contemporaries in Kentucky—but their enthusiasm and money in most cases kept them going. The real pioneer, if one must be selected, of the group was Movie Magnate Louis B. Mayer, who, with the assistance of men like Neil McCarthy and Laudy Lawrence, built up the largest Western stable and breeding establishment seen up to that time. His luck in the selection of sires and mares held amazingly true year after year until he disposed of most of his stock a few years ago.
If Louis Mayer was the West's breeding leader in the '40s, in the '50s it is Rex Ellsworth, and not too far behind this quiet-spoken student of conformation and bloodlines must be ranked Mrs. Richard Lunn, Harry Warner, Frank Bishop, Phil Klipstein, Peter McBean, Ellwood Johnston and Ed Goemans, Peter Strub, Dr. Frank Porter Miller, George W. Ring and still, to a certain extent, Louis Mayer.
What are the reasons for California's new breeding prominence? Said Lou Rowan, president of the growing California Thoroughbred Breeders Association: "Our breeders have searched the world for top broodmares. We now have between 200 and 300 who are as fashionable as you can find anywhere. The best example of this is the recent purchase by Ellsworth of 41 broodmares from the Aga Khan. It was Rex's intention to secure representatives of every good female line in Europe, and a good many of them are in foal now to very fashionable sires."
Another major point, says Rowan, is vastly improved animal husbandry on the farms. Ellsworth's ranch in Chino fully exploits the natural advantages of California, and Rex explained in his customary serious tone, "The old talk about horses having to be raised on that Kentucky bluegrass is just a lot of baloney. I've raised good horses in California in paddocks where there's absolutely nothing on the ground for them to eat, and everything they get is put in their bin. I've been around horses all my life, and I know a horse should get plenty of exercise and fresh air. Raise him in southern California where he can mature outdoors 365 days a year and he'll develop naturally—or the way a horse was intended to develop."
California does not claim superiority over Kentucky—yet. Meanwhile the California Thoroughbred industry comprises approximately 300 farms and ranches encompassing over 100,000 acres and is worth somewhere between 150 and 200 millions. Californians, however, really pray for one thing more than anything else: another Swaps.