Swaps, 1956

It occurred to me that almost all of the horses profiled so far in this series were based in the East. Most of the champions from that era were based in the East. Lest I be accused of harboring a bias, however, I am pleased to present a pair of Horses of the Year based in the West: Swaps this week and Ack Ack next week. Charles Hatton on 1956 Horse of the Year Swaps from the 1957 American Racing Manual.


Of first order in reviewing the champions of the 1956 turf in America comes “Horse of the Year” Swaps, surely one of the fastest thoroughbreds to appear during the two decades in which these polls have been conducted. He won eight of 10 races during his meticulously arranged campaign and shattered time records with a verve and in such number the most blasé sophisticates were volubly impressed. Swaps established four world marks and equaled another. If he did not shine in unmitigated perfection by comparison with the great weight carriers among handicap champions of the past, Rex C. Ellsworth’s and John W. Galbreath’s California-bred four-year-old proved to have a phenomenal degree of speed, the quality which from time immemorial has been held the first requisite of the racehorse.

The writer approaches this delineation of Swaps without trepidation, but well aware that some of the readers will consider that we are guilty of treating the subject with a panegyric, others that “we damn him with faint praise.” People feel strongly about Swaps. For two years, the turf world has been divided between the brilliant chestnut’s partisans and those of the East’s accomplished Nashua, who was voted the Horse of the Year in 1955. Unfortunately for racing, they did not meet in 1956. The honors were even in their only two encounters as three-year-olds. Swaps won the Kentucky Derby at Nashua’s expense and subsequently was beaten by Nashua in a match race. The impartial judge can only conclude that both colts are exceptional.

It may be apropos here to present a sort of manifesto in introducing these sketches of the leaders of the various categories during the campaign. These descriptions are a permanent record. It is their sole purpose to present the subject without favor or prejudice, incorporating all the pertinent facts available. Or role is not to toss literary valentines to the season’s favorites, painting word pictures of them like some commercial artist who ignores horses’ malformations to suit the taste of the owner. Rather, it is an attempt to give as complete and felicitous an account as possible.

Having been long exposed to thoroughbred breeding and racing, the writer can appreciate how deeply people feel about the products of their studs and stables. But there is a time and place for all things, and “tea and sympathy” shall have to wait. Think how deluded our generation should be but for the late brilliant Walter Spencer Vosburgh’s works, describing at first hand the cracks of the last half-century. When he felt praise was due, it was cheerfully given and in just measure. Conversely, he was frank to say so when an equine celebrity of his time showed a chink in his armor. Some of the most famous performers—including Swaps, we might add—have had the class to overcome certain physical handicaps in asserting their superiority.

Sysonby’s Devastating Stride

From Vosburgh we learn, among other things, that Hindoo had a long, weak-looking back, that Sysonby possessed a devastating stride, but was plain in appearance; that Miss Woodford was the best horse of her day, more masculine than feminine in her physical attributes (she failed as a broodmare); that unbeaten Colin had a suspicious hock. There are other authorities. Sam Pincus, who trained Iroquois to win the Epsom Derby, inspected Lexington and found much that was praiseworthy, especially his Arabian head, strong loin and quarters and resilient action. He also noted that “the Blind Hero of Woodburn” had perhaps the longest pasterns of his time. Billy Walker, who rode Ten Broeck in his match against California’s Mollie McCarthy, made a pilgrimage from Lexington to Saratoga to see Kentucky, winner of the first Saratoga Cup, and recalled to us, disappointedly: “He was no bigger than a yearling and could almost have run under the bar of his stall.” Again the sage Walker, long an advisor to John E. Madden, remembered the undefeated Ormonde as “just a little, straightbacked bay horse.” Except for these critics, and a few others as candid and perceptive, we should have no “complete picture,” only worthless, florid drivel.

Someone has said, “Every horse has 100 faults.” This is a gross and unforgivable exaggeration applied to many of the species, among them the 1956 Horse of the Year. Thoroughbreds may be badly formed in one particular or another, but it becomes a fault only when it clearly interferes with their capacities on the course or in training. At least that is the intelligent view once expressed by “Marse Tom” Healey. And, of course, type is strictly a question of personal preference.

There are several structural types in the thoroughbred family. Swaps’ is that commonly called “the greyhound.” Some may fancy shorter-backed animals, more closely knit about the forelegs, the hocks set on lower, but that is a matter of taste, and Swaps is not “wrong” in his balance, nor in any way vulgar. To the contrary, he has many of the physical attributes recalling his paternal grandsire, Hyperion, on a larger scale.

Swaps has the conformation and presence to catch the eye of the most casual paddock visitor, and to hold that of the connoisseur. The tout ensemble is a pleasing model of a performer apart, unmistakably “something special.” First of all, his coat is chestnut, not golden, nor red, but verging rather more on the lustrous dark shade of the Sultan of Stanley House, who is himself almost chocolate. It is a hard, fixed color, tending less to fading out about the points than lighter chestnuts. Swaps also is attractively marked, with a round star, a faint snip beside his right nostril, his near fore and off hind pasterns white.

Racing men once were apathetic about thoroughbreds having white on their underpinning. There is the familiar jingle which advises the owner of a horse having four white feet, “Cut off his head and feed him to the crows.” But then Flying Childers, who ran a mythical mile in a minute, the nonpareil Lexington and Hyperion all have or had “four whites.” Perhaps these markings originally were regarded with suspicion because, usually, they were accompanied by white-walled hoofs, and this sort sometimes tend to be softer than black. However, it is the hoof on Swaps’ right leg, the whole colored one, that has caused so much mischief.

Exquisite, Cameo Quality

Swaps’ head is one of the finest this observer ever has seen in the thoroughbred species, truly an ornament to embellish the Pantheon of the Horses of the Years. It has an exquisite, cameo quality, with the fine penciling of an Arab’s, the sort of frontispiece with which Herring adorned his subjects, including himself in all the poetic license he could conceive. The ear is delicately tapered and erect, playing almost constantly, like those of a horse given to thought, or the mental processes which pass for cerebration in equines.

The eyes are large, intelligent and kindly, the jowls flat with high cheek bones, the muzzle small and delicately turned. There is a slight bulge at the brain pan, between the eyes; below this is a bloodlike convexity. There is no tendency toward a “parrot mouth,” and the lips are firm. He might be a trifle wider between the eyes, but the space here is not noticeably narrow, as is the case of his grandsire, Hyperion, from whom he inherited this attractive head and, one suspects, his tranquil, sociable disposition and no little of his racing class. In competition, in training and in transit from track to track, he has the sober, dutiful personality which is the hallmark of his tribe.

He champion’s neck is long, arched and not heavily crested, narrow at the throatlatch and flowing gracefully into thin, rather pronounced withers. . . . The scapula has moderate length and is set on at an angle implementing his long extended action. The shoulder and elbow are well, though not too heavily muscled. The forearm is unusually well developed, as is the gaskin, while the muscular investiture of the stifle is abnormal, connoting tremendous driving power. This last is, indeed, the cachet of his extraordinary speed.

The Californian’s top line has a scope which contributes to his racing-like aspect; at the same time it is smooth both at the withers and over the loin, which has fair width. There is no suggestion of weakness in the flanks. He has excellent length of pelvis, so much so that in repose it seems to extend beyond the point of the hock, for his hind leg is reasonably straight and sets well under him.

Trifle Over at the Knee

The angulation of Swaps’ forelegs would be difficult to improve. He is just a trifle over at the knee, as most experienced horsemen like, and his pasterns are of the desired length and at the correct angle. There is nothing spool-like about them. His bone is flat and of medium breadth. It is from the knees down that Swaps’ people might wish to change him. The knees tend to be a trifle open, particularly the right one, which has a gummy appearance but is said not to have given any concern.

Swaps’ ankles are enlarged, and clearly show the effects of the “’eavy, ‘eavy ‘ammer on the ‘ard ‘ighway,” recalling those of the 1936 three-year-old champion Granville. There is something Pyrrhic about his career. One wonders if Swaps’ underpinning is to be ascribed so much to a certain softness as to the pasteboard type of racecourse over which he has shown such breathtaking speed. As we have stated, his legs conform to all the fastidious racing man’s ideals as to angle, but even so Swaps has put so much stress on them it has marred them.

The theory is held that the fact that the Khaled colt has trained and raced most of his career “on the hard” caused these blemishes. It also may explain his long, low and supremely confident manner of striding, for rarely has he had to accommodate his action to rough, uneven and yielding surfaces, such as many tracks east of the Rockies present. Western horses often have “run down” on Atlantic Seaboard tracks, where collected action is a prerequisite for maximum speeds. The hoofs of horses plated to race in the East are trimmed to provide more toe than on thin, level racing surfaces.

Injured Right Fore Hoof

Now for the most famous heel since Achilles. Swaps’ right fore hoof was injured, so close on his engagement in the Santa Anita Derby it is conceivable he might have been a trifle short for that event, but which he nevertheless won. The affected part was scraped, the pus removed and a pad provided as a protective agent, between the plate and horn. Precisely how the injury was incurred has never been made clear. Seemingly it is recurrent.

Swaps is an excellent “doer” and one imagines he will furnish out into a remarkably big stallion unless his diet is carefully supervised. His people are good feeders, however, and it goes almost without saying he will be kept in a vigorous condition. He will mature at approximately 16.2 with a normal weight of about 1,200 pounds. Though turf enthusiasts may remember him as a horse slightly longer than tall, and he certainly is “well grown,” his form will present a much more square appearance when he has completely let down. His middle, naturally round with well-sprung ribs, and with superb depth through the heart, then will tend to foreshorten the overall picture he presents. He will be something of an equine Adonis, a “picture horse.”

It is just as well that he has so much “horse sense” and aplomb, for, of course, this stood him in good stead when he was placed in a sling to mend his fractured hind leg. A fretful individual would have been in more grievous trouble, and indeed, horses have been known to die in a sling.

Swaps, who was a March 1 foal at Ellsworth’s 80-acres Ontario, California, ranch, is of impeccable English breeding in three of the first four stirps of his pedigree. His sire, Khaled, purchased from the Aga Khan, who had acquired him as an unraced colt, is by Hyperion from Éclair, the next dam the noted producer Black Ray. Khaled was a fairly successful racehorse and in his instance the pedigree proved stronger than the individual. Swaps is out of Iron Reward, a daughter of the Son-in-Law horse Beau Pere, who descended from the celebrated Sceptre.

The second dam, Iron Maiden, is by our American Triple Crown winner War Admiral, out of the mare Betty Derr, a good stakes winner in Kentucky in the writer’s youth. Betty Derr was by Sir Gallahad III out of Uncle’s Lassie. This is an old American family and the immediate family of the Kentucky Derby winner Clyde Van Dusen, named for Betty Derr’s trainer. The Star Shoot horse Uncle, sire of Uncle’s Lassie, was a successful if well-nigh forgotten progenitor, sending up the Kentucky Derby winner Old Rosebud in his first crop of foals. Thus Swaps presents the now familiar formula of intermingling domestic and imported blood.

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