Barry Irwin, now the head of Team Valor International, was entering his teenage years in Southern California when Swaps burst onto the scene in 1955.
“He just really excited me and caught my imagination,” Irwin recalled.
Irwin was hardly alone. Swaps’ popularity became so enormous that Union 76 gas stations began distributing posters of him. “I kept pushing my father to get gas there so I could get more pictures,” Irwin said.
The California-bred son of Khaled set up a Kentucky Derby showdown with East Coast sensation Nashua by winning his first two starts as a 3-year-old, in the San Vicente Stakes and the Santa Anita Derby. Eddie Arcaro, who rode Nashua, spiced the rivalry by saying before the Derby that he viewed Summer Tan, not Swaps, as the primary threat to his heavily-favored colt in the run for the roses.
Yet it was Swaps who prevailed with a memorable front-running effort that allowed him to finish the mile-and-a-quarter classic in 2:01 4/5, two-fifths of a second off the track record, for jockey Bill Shoemaker.
It was, of course, the greatest moment in a 3-year-old campaign full of them. After Nashua rebounded to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, Swaps dominated the Will Rogers Stakes by 12 lengths. He set a world record for 1 1/16 miles with a time of 1:40 2/5 seconds in the Californian Stakes. The extraordinary comment line read: “Almost casually.”
He “drew out at will” in the Westerner Stakes and set a course record of 1:54 3/5 in the 1 3/16-mile American Derby on turf as a prelude to a hugely-anticipated match race with Nashua. Unfortunately for Swaps, he sustained a foot injury the day before the big event. Nashua broke sharply for Arcaro at Chicago’s Washington Park on Aug. 31, 1955 and never looked back. Nashua went on to be named Horse of the Year while Swaps recuperated from his foot injury the rest of the season.
Swaps compensated for lost time in wresting Horse of the Year honors away from Nashua at age 4. It seemed as though he made historic breakthroughs every time he stepped into the starting gate. He set world records in the Broward Handicap (1 mile and 70 yards, 1:39 3/5), Argonaut Handicap (1 mile, 1:33 1/5), Inglewood (1 1/16 miles, 1:39), and Sunset Handicap (1 5/8 miles, 2:38 1/5). He lowered the track record by a full second in the mile-and-a-quarter Hollywood Gold Cup with a blistering time of 1:58 3/5 seconds.
“He probably had the purest action of any horse I’ve seen,” Irwin said. “He was like a well-oiled machine. I think that is what allowed him to break records on any surface.” Irwin chronicled the horse’s Hall of Fame career in “Swaps,” published by Eclipse Press in 2002.
In all, Swaps won 19 of 25 starts with two runner-up finishes and two third-place showings for earnings of $848,900. His career ended when he fractured a left rear leg in two places while training for the Washington D.C. International.
Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, Nashua’s trainer, sent a special sling that was used to aid the horse’s recovery and salvage his stallion career. Such was the respect for Swaps.
Note: This story was originally published in 2018 and has been updated.
- Swaps ranked 20th when BloodHorse listed its top 100 U.S. Thoroughbred champions of the 20th century
- His dam, Iron Reward, was a granddaughter of Triple Crown winner War Admiral
- Owner-breeder Rex Ellsworth and trainer Mesh Tenney first met as 8-year-old classmates in Safford, Ariz.
- Ellsworth and Tenney were Mormons. Ellsworth served a mission in Africa, Tenney in Colorado.
- Swaps was often shipped in a railway car known as a palace car.