Any rivalry needs something more than great competition to make it legendary.
East vs. West. Rich vs. Poor. Big vs. Small.
Sprinkle any of those ingredients into a battle between two great athletes and you have something memorable.
In 1955, the Kentucky Derby brought together two disparate equine stars.
From California came Swaps, the upstart with a modest pedigree who was a blue-collar hero.
His rival was a colt from the East with classic bloodlines who hailed from one of the sport’s best-known stables and was trained by the sport’s living legend.
Nashua was the other half of that great rivalry with Swaps. Bred by the famed Belair Stud of William Woodward Jr., the son of Nasrullah finished second to Swaps in their famed clash at the 1955 Kentucky Derby. But that was one of the few times in a glorious career that Nashua did not wind up in the winner’s circle.
In a 30-race career, Nashua not only avenged that loss to Swaps, he won 22 times and retired in 1956 with career earnings of $1,288,565, pushing him past Triple Crown champ Citation and making him the sport’s all-time money leader at that time. He was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1965.
As much as he’s often linked with Swaps, much like Affirmed and Alydar have been since their 1977-’78 duels, Nashua’s accomplishments could easily stand the test of time without the slightest bit of help from his nemesis.
Trained by the legendary James E. “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, who was 79 years old at the time, Nashua started his career impressively with a maiden win on May 5, 1954, and only grew better with age and experience.
At 2, Nashua took the Juvenile Stakes at Belmont Park in his second start. He suffered his first loss when he finished second in the Cherry Hill Stakes at Garden Stakes and then closed out his 1954 campaign by winning four his next five starts, highlighted by triumphs in the Hopeful at Saratoga and Belmont Futurity under regular rider Eddie Arcaro. At year’s end, he was named the champion 2-year-old of 1954.
At 3, Nashua continued to shine. He won his first four starts, including the Flamingo, Florida Derby, and Wood Memorial. His margin of victory in the Wood and Florida Derby were narrow – by a neck each time – but he was a consensus choice to add a victory in the Kentucky Derby to his growing list of laurels.
One of the horses standing in his way was Swaps, the Santa Anita Derby winner, whose final prep for the Kentucky Derby was a solid victory in a six-furlong sprint at Churchill Downs.
To some, he was a threat for Nashua, but Arcaro saw it differently. He told reporters that his main concern in the race was Summer Tan. Fitzsimmons, too, believed that Summer Tan was the one to fear.
Arcaro and Fitzsimmons did not make many mistakes in their career, but their underestimation of Swaps was wrong. Though Nashua was a 7-to-5 favorite, he proved to be second-best as he chased the front-running Swaps for much of the race but was unable to collar the speedy Californian, who pulled away in the stretch to win the run for the roses by a length and a half.
“Nashua did not lose the Derby because of any fault of his,” Fitzsimmons told Sports Illustrated. “He lost it because I chucked it for him with my instructions to Eddie Arcaro to watch Summer Tan. I didn't know much about this horse Swaps, but a few fellows who thought they did told me they figured him for a mile or a mile-and-a-furlong horse — in other words one who probably wouldn't like the mile-and-a-quarter Derby distance. I was wrong to believe it. In that race, we lay back — as it turned out we lay back too far — watching Summer Tan while Swaps did the first three-quarters in an easy 1:12 2/5.
“When Eddie finally saw Summer Tan was not going to be the threat that I had said he would be, he went after Swaps. It was no use. Swaps had a good finishing kick, and we were cleanly licked. We had no excuse. I've never alibied for any loss and never will. But I figured I chucked that race, and I felt all along that things might be different if the two horses ever met again. I know Eddie felt the same, and I guess Mr. Woodward wanted another meeting about as bad as anyone else.”
The Kentucky Derby was a ringing endorsement for California racing and created a legion of fans for Swaps, yet the rivalry that it spawned went on hiatus for a bit.
Nashua rebounded from his defeat at Churchill Downs to capture the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, but Swaps passed on both races.
As fans clamored for a rematch between the two brilliant 3-year-olds, Nashua won the Dwyer and Arlington Classic.
Finally, on Aug. 31, 1955, Swaps and Nashua met again, this time when the connections of both horses agreed to a match race at Washington Park at the Derby distance of 1 ¼ miles.
Much changed since their first meeting as fans at the Chicago track made Swaps the 3-to-10 favorite and Nashua went off at 6-to-5 odds. Fitzsimmons, too, learned from his goof at Churchill Downs.
“The day of the match race, I felt fairly confident,” he told Sports Illustrated. “I figured we’d win if we ran my kind of a race. In match racing, the purpose is to discover which is the best horse, and I wanted to find out in a hurry. I decided we were going to run from the jump, and whichever horse could take it would win. Some time ago, I said that I wouldn't be surprised to see one horse win by a big margin when the other horse cracked. Well, I knew we were ready to run, and I didn’t think we were going to do the cracking.”
This time the Hall of Fame trainer was spot on with his assessment. The match race was no contest.
Nashua was in peak condition and he beat Swaps at his own game. He took the lead at the start and never gave Swaps a chance to defeat him for a second time.
Pulling away in the stretch, Nashua won by 6 ½ lengths to even the score with his rival.
After Nashua ended the year with a five-length victory over older horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, he was later rewarded for his sensational year by being named Horse of the Year and the champion 3-year-old.
In between those two events, 16 days after the 1954 JC Gold Cup, tragedy intervened as Woodward Jr. was accidently shot and killed by his wife, who mistakenly believed he was a burglar. As a result, in 1955 Nashua was sold for a staggering $1,251,200 to a group that included prominent breeder Leslie Combs II.
Both Nashua and Swaps raced at 4, but sadly they never met in another showdown. While Swaps spent much of the year on the West Coast, Nashua raced 10 times on the East Coast and won five times, including stakes like the Widener Handicap, Suburban Handicap, and Jockey Club Gold Cup in his final start.
In another twist of fate, Swaps was named Horse of the Year for 1956.
Yet even without back-to-back Horse of the Year titles, Nashua headed into retirement as one of the most talented and respected horses of his generation.
And most famous, too, thanks to a rivalry that had all of the right ingredients in it.
Fun Facts About Nashua
- As successful as he was on the racetrack, Nashua was equally great as a sire at Combs’ Spendthrift Farm. His offspring featured 85 stakes winners including champion mare Shuvee; Producer, a champion filly in France; Gold Digger, the dam of renowned sire Mr. Prospector; and Melbourne Cup winner Beldale Ball. “That horse virtually made Spendthrift Farm,” Arnold Kirkpatrick, vice president of Spendthrift Farm at the time, told United Press International when Nashua was put down due to old age in 1982. “He put the farm on the map. We’ve got horses who’ve been more successful as stallions, but I don't think any horse meant more to us.”
- Nashua’s earnings record stood until 1958, when it was eclipsed by Round Table.
- In BloodHorse magazine’s rankings of the Top 100 U.S. champions of the 20th Century, Nashua ranked 24th.
- According to “Covers,” a book published by Sports Illustrated, the magazine planned to name Woodward Jr. as its Sportsman of the Year for 1955, but opted for Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Johnny Podres after Woodward’s death.
This story was first published in 2014 and has been updated.