Swaps was bred and owned by Rex C. Ellsworth, who bought the stallion *Khaled from the Aga Khan. Ellsworth would breed his stallion to the Beau Pere mare, Iron Reward, resulting in the chestnut colt that would become the second California-bred to win the Kentucky Derby, following the 1922 winner, Morvich. The name Swaps came from name-swapping with friends, trying to find the perfect title. The chestnut would be trained by Meshach Tenney, who said that the usually well-mannered colt could turn on a dime if triggered.
At two, Swaps would only race in California, winning the June Juvenile Stakes, along with two thirds in the Haggin and Westchester Stakes. On December 30, Swaps won the 6 furlong Amarillo Ranch Purse by a photo-finish, starting the first of 9 consecutive victories. His 3YO campaign would start on January 19th in the San Vincente Stakes that he would win by 3 ½ lengths. Unfortunately in the race, he split the sole of his right fore foot, which would require the leather from shoes to be nailed under his horse shoe to keep dirt from getting in. The area under the leather was packed with lanolin and sulfa, to help with infection as well as keeping the foot soft so that it would prevent further cracking. He would wear the patch while winning the Santa Anita Derby, in addition to his Kentucky Derby victory.
After the Santa Anita Derby which was on February 19, he wouldn’t race again until April 30, when he also got a jockey change from Johnny Longden to Bill Shoemaker. Shoemaker would pilot the colt to an 8 ½ length victory in the 6 furlong Jefferson Purse the week before the Derby. Off of the Jefferson Purse victory, Swaps would be made the second choice going into the Kentucky Derby, behind the favorite, Nashua. No one quite knew what to make of his morning routines, as it was different from the way the majority of the horses trained. Swaps would be worked and cooled out on the track, so that when he returned he was ready to be sponged off and put away. Trainer Tenney received a rose in that mail from a fan that came off of Morvich’s Kentucky Derby blanket. It was sent as good luck, so Tenney let Swaps smell it before the colt was sent to be saddled for the big race.
The 81st Kentucky Derby would be run with a field of 10 horses over a fast track. When the gates opened, Swaps would break towards the back, running in eighth. Shoemaker tried to move to the rail, with no luck. Finally on the backstretch, an opening appeared and the pair darted through it to take the lead. As they reached the far turn, Nashua would take second, drawing closer to Swaps. When they reached almost even terms, Shoemaker just swung the crop at Swaps, who shot away from Nashua to win by a length and a half going away. The timer was stopped in 2:01 4/5, making Swaps only the fifth horse to run the race in under 2:02. After the Kentucky Derby, the winner didn’t run in the Preakness, instead he was shipped back to California. This was the second time in consecutive years that the winner of the Kentucky Derby skipped the Triple Crown series, choosing to instead run in California. The second place finisher in the Derby, Nashua, would travel to the east, winning the Preakness and Belmont. In his return to the track on May 30, in the mile long Will Rogers Handicap, Swaps would win the race by 12 lengths, while covering the distance in 1:35. In the June 11th Californian Stakes, the chestnut would take on older horses for the first time, including the 1955 Derby champ Determine. In defeating the field, Swaps set a new World Record for the mile and a sixteenth distance, stopping the clock in 1:40 2/5. In the Westerner Stakes (that was renamed to the Hollywood Derby), Swaps easily won the mile and a quarter race in 2:00 3/5. From California, the connections shipped Swaps to Chicago to run in the American Derby, which was a mile and three-sixteenths on the grass. Victorious, he would equal the American Record for the distance, passing under the wire in 1:54 3/5. Washington Park wanted to have a match race between Swaps and Nashua, with both horses carrying 126 pounds over a mile and a quarter for $100,000. Swaps was having some issues with his old sore foot that didn’t become apparent until after the race, which he lost by 6 ½ lengths. When the issue was discovered, the colt was sent back to California to rest for the remainder of the year.
As a four year-old, Swaps would pick-up where he left off prior to the match race, winning the February 17th LA County Fair Handicap easily while carrying 127 pounds. After heading to Florida, he would set a World Record in the running of the Broward Handicap, running a mile and 70 yards in 1:39 3/5. Back in California, Swaps would receive a poor ride in the running of the Californian Stakes, losing in a photo. Back on the winning track on June 9th, Swaps would start a new winning streak of 5 races, in which he carried at least 130 pounds in all but the Argonaut Handicap, the first race in the streak. The Argonaut would see Swaps beat Citation’s World Record for one mile, lowering it to 1:33 1/5. His next contest would be in the Inglewood Handicap, where he would run the mile even faster while flying over the distance of 1 1/16, setting the World Record for that distance in 1:39. Swaps would equal the World Record for 9 furlongs in the American Handicap, running in 1:46 4/5. 10 days later in the Hollywood Gold Cup, Swaps would again prove victorious, winning under wraps, going over the mile and a quarter in 1:58 3/5, setting a track record, but only off of the World Record by 2/5 of a second. The last race of the win streak would come in the mile and 5/8 Sunset Handicap, where he won under restraint and shattered the World Record, setting the new time at 2:38 1/5. Shipping again to Chicago, Swaps would struggle over a soft turf course in the Arch Ward Memorial, finishing seventh. The speedy chestnut returned in the Washington Park Handicap, breaking the Track Record for the mile distance, setting the new record in 1:33. Coming out of the race with his foot sore, Swaps would return to California for a brief rest. While training to return, Swaps would fracture his cannon bone on October 9th. Recovering from that injury, Swaps kicked his stall, resulting in a second break. In order to help his recovery, Swaps needed to have a sling to stand in so that his weight would be evenly distributed. A sling was sent to Swaps by “Sunny” Jim Fitzsimmons, the trainer of Swaps rival, Nashua. The sling helped in his healing, as he stood in it for weeks, allowing the breaks to heal completely. Retired, owner Ellsworth had sold half interest in Swaps to John W. Galbreath for 1 million dollars, with the agreement to stand the 1956 Horse of the Year for one season at Ellsworth’s California farm, then rotating him to Galbreath’s Darby Dan Farm. Later, Galbreath would end up buying out the other half for the same amount.
In 1967, the stallion was syndicated and moved to Spendthrift. The rivalry with Nashua continued to the breeding shed, with Swaps getting the first $100,000 yearling. He would also sire champion fillies, the hall of famer Affectionately, and the handicap mare Primonetta, in addition to siring Kentucky Derby winner Chateaugay. When Swaps passed away, he was originally buried at Spendthrift Farm. In 1986, his remains were moved to the Kentucky Derby Museum, where he is buried along with 4 other Derby winners. In 2014, his old exercise rider turned trainer, Art Sherman, visited his old friend’s grave asking Swaps to give some of his talent to his Derby hope, California Chrome, who Sherman had affectionately nicknamed “My Swaps”. The old champion must have heard, because Chrome would go on to win the Kentucky Derby.
(Ticket courtesy of Kentucky Derby Museum archives)