In some ways, Swale can be considered the Riva Ridge of the 1980s.
Both were champions.
Each of them were obscured by a famous stablemate for part of their career.
They also registered the first Kentucky Derby win for one of the sport’s most famous farms.
Both suffered a loss in the Preakness that kept them from sweeping the Triple Crown.
Yet Swale did not save his farm, like Riva Ridge did (sorry, folks, the Secretariat movie got that part wrong).
Nor did he put together a career long enough and sensational enough to join Riva Ridge in the National Museum of Racing and Hall and Fame. Fate intervened far too soon to allow that to happen.
The saga of Swale was one of racing’s saddest tales of the 1980s.
Once the second-string talent behind Devil’s Bag, Swale won the 1984 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes to finally occupy center stage in a year when racing was looking for stars to stock its first Breeders’ Cup. But then, even swifter than fame smiled on him, his great moment of triumph in the Belmont Stakes turned into tragedy just eight days later when Claiborne Farm’s homebred colt suffered what is believed to be heart failure and died.
“Swale was so special because it's been the dream of this farm and everyone here for so long to win a Derby and he's the one who finally did it for us,” said John Sosby, who was Claiborne’s farm manager at the time of the colt’s death.
Swale was born at Claiborne Farm and hailed from a royal lineage. His sire was 1977 Triple Crown champion Seattle Slew and his dam was Claiborne’s Tuerta, a one-eyed daughter of Forli.
While he raced under Claiborne’s name and carried its silks, he was owned by a group that included William Haggin Perry, Peter Brant and members of the Hancock family, which owned and operated Claiborne Farm under the leadership of Seth Hancock.
Like most of Claiborne’s top horses of that era, Swale started his career as part of Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens’s stable in New York.
Swale made his career debut on July 7, 1983, at Belmont Park and finished second as a 3-5 favorite. He rebounded to win his next start and then captured the Saratoga Special, beating Shuttle Jet, who had beaten him in his career debut.
He finished third in the Hopeful, but then closed out his 2-year-old season with a trio of photo-finish wins, taking the Belmont Futurity by a nose, the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland by a head and the Young America Stakes at the Meadowlands by a nose.
In another year, a campaign like that could have earned a 2-year-old an Eclipse Award. Yet in 1983, it made Swale the second-best juvenile in the nation – and his barn.
Devil’s Bag, owned by Hickory Tree Stable and trained by Stephens, was as dazzling at two as any of the Triple Crown champions of the previous decade.
He won all five of his starts at two by a combined 27 lengths and closed out the year by winning a pair of Grade 1 stakes, the Champagne and Laurel Futurity, by six and 5 ¼ lengths, respectively.
To no one surprise, Devil’s Bag was voted the year’s champion 2-year-old and whenever the topic of conversation turned to 1984 the train of thought was not whether Devil’s Bag could win the Kentucky Derby, but could he sweep the Triple Crown?
With such a brilliant and charismatic star in his own barn, it was easy to overlook Swale as the Triple Crown preps began.
An eight-length win in the Hutcheson reminded everyone of how good Swale could be, but then a stunning third-place finish in the Fountain of Youth as a 2-5 favorite raised questions about his stature as top-shelf Kentucky Derby material.
Meanwhile, Devil’s Bag’s star also began to dim. Two weeks before Swale’s loss in the Fountain of Youth, Devil’s Bag went down to an even more shocking loss when he faded to fourth in the Grade 1 Flamingo.
Devil’s Bag then romped in the Forerunner Purse at Keeneland, but in was supposed to be his final prep for the Kentucky Derby, he posted a lackluster win in the Derby Trial over the same track as the Derby. The plan became to reserve him for the Preakness, but shortly after his victory at Churchill Downs a bone chip was discovered in his knee and he was retired before the first Saturday in May.
Swale, in the interim, became Stephens’s main Derby hope. Ridden for the first time by Laffit Pincay Jr., who took over the mount because Eddie Maple was committed to Devil’s Bag, Swale rebounded from the Fountain of Youth by winning the Florida Derby, beating Dr. Carter, who had finished ahead of Devil’s Bag in the Flamingo.
The good karma, though, turned to turmoil when Swale’s final Derby prep turned into a runner-up finish by eight lengths to the unheralded He Is a Great Dude in the Lexington Stakes. The loss was blamed on a sloppy racetrack, but it served to resurrect some doubts about his ability to handle the best remaining members of the division at a demanding mile-and-a-quarter distance.
An added complication for Swale was that Stephens was hospitalized for pneumonia and emphysema for a few weeks in late April and was not released until the eve of the Kentucky Derby. Claiborne’s Mike Griffin was brought in to fill in for Stephens during that period as Swale thrived after the setback in the Lexington.
The Flamingo was viewed as the year’s best prep, and with the three favorites in that race (Time for a Change, Dr. Carter, and Devil’s Bag) out of the Derby picture, favoritism in the 110th edition of the run for the roses was bestowed in an unusual manner. With the year’s collection of top colts depleted, trainer D. Wayne Lukas’s entry of two fillies, Althea and Life’s Magic, was sent off as the 5-2 favorite.
Swale was the $3.40-to-1 second choice.
But on that May afternoon, Swale was ready for a peak effort. Third in the early stages behind the pace-setting Althea, he surged to the front on the final turn, drew off to a five-length lead at the eighth pole and registered a 3 1/4-length victory over Coax Me Chad and At the Threshold.
According to Sports Illustrated, in the celebration after the Claiborne’s coveted initial Derby win, Griffin offered a champagne toast to Dell Hancock, Seth’s sister, with the words, “All’s Swale that ends Swale.”
The pursuit of a Derby win was over for Claiborne and its partners, but the Triple Crown chase was not.
Swale headed to Pimlico where he was sent off as an odds-on 3-5 favorite in the Preakness.
Yet once again, something went wrong.
Bill Badgett, who was one of Stephens’s assistants during that era, told ESPN.com a few years ago that Swale’s chances in Preakness were undermined by a lightning-quick workout.
“I had the best 3-year-olds in the country, and since Devil’s Bag was all through by that time, Swale was the best and he proved it (in the Kentucky Derby). In the Preakness, I wanted him to work a mile in 1:41 for the race, and he went in 1:37. The track was like this floor, and he couldn’t handle it,” Stephens said in a NYRA.com story recounting his Belmont Stakes winners.
Swale chased the early leaders in the Preakness, but wilted in the stretch and wound up seventh.
Undaunted by the end of the Triple Crown bid, Stephens went to work, preparing Swale for the Belmont Stakes in hopes of notching a third straight win in the final leg of the Triple Crown.
“Woody did a phenomenal job with him,” said Badgett, who claimed what Stephens accomplished with Swale serves as the Hall of Famer’s best work in the Test of the Champion.
Though it’s the longest leg of the Triple Crown, the mile-and-a-half Belmont on June 9 provided a modest pace that perfectly suited Swale. On a sweltering day in New York, the son of Seattle Slew was sent off as a 3-2 favorite and led throughout en route to a four-length win over Pine Circle that gave Stephens the third of what would ultimately become a still unrivaled five straight wins in the Belmont.
The Belmont erased any doubts about Swale and firmly positioned him as the undisputed leader of the division.
The glory that was being held in reserve for Devil’s Bag, was now his.
Then tragedy struck.
On June 17, shortly after returning from a leisurely gallop around Belmont Park, Swale suddenly collapsed. Within minutes, he was dead.
''It was horrible,'' said Phil Gleaves, one of Stephens’s assistants at the time. ''At first we thought he had just fallen, but then his tongue and his gums were white and he didn't take a breath for about a minute and a half.''
As those close to the horse tried to make sense of such a senseless turn of events, there were no immediate answers for what had happened.
“The horse never had a sick day in his life. He never even had so much as an aspirin. Never even ran a temperature,” Stephens told the media.
Several weeks later, a pathologist found that there was scar tissue near Swale’s aortic valve and ruled that heart failure was the most likely cause of death.
Swale’s death was a devastating blow to Claiborne and the Hancock family that left them shocked and heartbroken. Though burial at Claiborne was usually reserved for the farm’s greatest stallions, an exception was made so that Swale could be interred with them.
“That’s the way Seth wanted it. Swale deserved a place among the stallions. Nothing was said during the ceremony. I said goodbye in my own way and Mr. Hancock did in his own way. I know grown men aren’t supposed to cry, but I shed a tear today,” Sosby said at the time.
Sosby was not alone. The horse that was in the shadows for so long had finally won the heart of America, only to break it in the most shocking of manners.
It’s a haunting legacy, yet one that best explains why decades later it’s Swale, not his stablemate, who is so fondly remembered from the spring of 1984.
Fun Facts About Swale
- Swale raced 14 times, won nine times and earned $1,583,660.
- Swale’s winning time of 2:27 1/5 in the Belmont was the fourth-fastest ever at the time.
- Laffit Pincay Jr.’s lone Kentucky Derby win was aboard Swale.
- Peter Brant, one of Swale’s owners, won three other stakes on the 1984 Belmont Stakes card.
- Swale was posthumously voted the Eclipse Award as the champion 3-year-old male of 1984.
- Eddie Maple, who rode Swale in his first nine races, wound up finishing third in the 1984 Kentucky Derby on At the Threshold.
- In Woody Stephens’s five straight Belmont Stakes wins, only Swale was favored.
- Gulfstream offers the Swale Stakes as one of its winter races for 3-year-olds.
This feature was first published in 2015 and has been updated.