Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Nashua vs. Swaps


Fifty-five years ago today, one of the most famous match races in thoroughbred history took place at Washington Park in Homewood, which is long gone now but ranked as one of the foremost venues in racing for several decades in the middle of the 20th Century. Below is an account of the race from the recent book Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports.

     The Great Match Race of August 31, 1955, at Washington Park featured the two most illustrious three-year-olds of the day, Nashua and Swaps.
     The two had competed once before, in the Kentucky Derby of that same year. On that occasion, Swaps took command from the outset, then held off Nashua by a length and a half in a stirring stretch duel. Swaps returned to California after the Derby, leaving the Preakness and Belmont Stakes to Nashua, who won both races impressively. In July, Nashua came to Arlington Park and triumphed in the Arlington Classic—his eighth victory of the year in nine starts. Swaps, meanwhile, was still undefeated for the year. The public and the media clamored for a rematch. As soon as Nashua crossed the finish line in the Classic, Ben Lindheimer (executive director of Arlington Park and Washington Park) turned to Nashua’s owner William Woodward, Jr., who was sitting beside him, and proposed the match race. Several days later, Lindheimer announced that Nashua and Swaps would meet at Washington Park on the last day of August for $100,000, winner-take-all.
     Nashua was the best in the East, Swaps the best in the West. They met in the middle for the great match race.
     Swaps arrived in Chicago first and prepared for the match race by running in the American Derby, also at Washington Park, on August 20. Trying the grass for the first time in his career, he beat Traffic Judge (runner-up to Nashua in the Classic) by one length at a mile and three-sixteenths. Nashua warmed up for the race at Saratoga, where trainer Jim Fitzsimmons kept the rest of his stable and where jockey Eddie Arcaro was available for morning workouts.
     In Fitzsimmons and Arcaro, Nashua had two of the greatest names in the history of racing on his side. Fitzsimmons, a living legend, was 81 years old and had been in the game as a stablehand, jockey, and trainer since 1885. Though severely stooped by arthritis in his spine, he was invariably cheerful—hence his nickname, Sunny Jim. He had trained two Triple Crown winners, Gallant Fox and Omaha, and countless other stakes winners. He was also known for the many pearls of wisdom that he freely dispensed: “What you can learn from fixing up a cheap horse will come in handy on an expensive one”; “No trainer has ever made a bad horse good, but some trainers have made good horses bad”; “Keep regular hours, eat simple food, get plenty of fresh air, and always remember that human beings are inconsistent.”
     Arcaro had piloted two Triple Crown winners, Whirlaway and Citation (he remains the only jockey to have swept the series twice). His five wins in the Kentucky Derby, five in the Preakness, and six in the Belmont Stakes were all records. Horseplayers called him Steady Eddie, Heady Eddie, or, simply, The Master.
     Interestingly, though they were a nearly invincible team, Arcaro hated Nashua, whom he called “one mean bastard,” and the feeling seemed to be mutual. “He’d bite me,” said Arcaro, “if I let him.”
     While Nashua was a regally bred standard bearer of the Eastern racing aristocracy, Swaps was the product of humbler origins. The first California-bred to win the Derby since 1922 was owned by a roughhewn cowboy, Rex Ellsworth, and trained by another, Mesh Tenney. His jockey was a 24-year-old Texan, Bill Shoemaker, who before long would succeed Arcaro as the rider everyone wanted for a big race.
     Although it did not become widely known until later, Swaps had a chronic foot problem that flared up in the days just before the race. Ellsworth and Tenney even went to Lindheimer to see about postponing the event. But time had been set aside for a national telecast on CBS, and thousands were on their way to Chicago to witness what had been billed as the race of the century. Race day was also the closing day of Washington Park’s season. A postponement or cancellation would be a financial and public-relations disaster. Ellsworth agreed to go ahead.
     A crowd of 35,262—amazing for a Wednesday afternoon—turned out for the race, augmented by millions tuned in on radio or television. The race was carded for a mile and a quarter, with each horse carrying 126 pounds—the same conditions as their earlier meeting in the Derby. Heavy rains the night before had made the track soggy, but there was no standing water, and the racing surface was officially labeled “good.”
     In the Derby, Shoemaker and Swaps had gotten the jump on Arcaro and Nashua. Arcaro had bided his time in the early stages, waiting for another contender named Summer Tan to make a move. By the time Nashua raced Summer Tan into submission, Swaps had gotten away to a clear lead, and he was able to withstand a determined drive by Nashua in the last quarter mile. Arcaro vowed that he and Nashua would dictate the pace this time.
     Both horses appeared to be in peak form as they paraded to the post. No one in the crowd would have guessed that Swaps was less than a hundred percent; even Tenney wasn’t sure how much less than his best he was that day. Swaps was favored at 1-3; Nashua was 6-5. They entered the starting gate, Nashua in the No. 2 stall and Swaps in No. 4, and were off.
     “There was nothing complicated about it,” Evan Shipman wrote in Daily Racing Form. “As the doors opened, Arcaro, yelling like a banshee and wielding his whip with all his strength, shot Nashua to the front, while Swaps, away on the outside, veered farther out toward the outside rail.” Arcaro pushed Nashua from the bell and kept pushing him; he also forced Swaps away from the best footing on the inside part of the track. Nashua led as they passed the grandstand for the first time, and it was clear that Arcaro intended for him to lead all the way to the wire.
     Time is of little importance in a match race, of course, because all that matters is beating the other horse. But Arcaro put Nashua through the early stages of the race at a murderous pace, playing “catch us if you can.” Nashua went half a mile in 46 seconds, and six furlongs in 1:10.4 (a full second faster than excellent sprinters had managed in six-furlong races earlier in the day). He was going to make it very difficult for Swaps, racing outside in the heavier going, to get around him.
     Swaps was game, and several times Shoemaker brought him almost abreast of his rival. But Nashua refused to yield. Each time Swaps ranged up to contest the lead, Nashua dug in and extended his advantage. Even in the home stretch, Arcaro kept his whip busy to make sure that Nashua continued driving. Only in the final furlong, by which time the outcome had been decided, did he permit Nashua to coast.
     Nashua came to the wire six and a half lengths in front.
     “It was a great race and, naturally, the thrill of my life,” said Fitzsimmons. He went on to explain that he had instructed Arcaro simply to “Get out and go.” Then, smiling, Sunny Jim said, “And Eddie did.” The race catapulted Nashua to Horse of the Year honors. (Two years later, at the age of 83, Fitzsimmons trained another Horse of the Year, Nashua’s half brother Bold Ruler—who went on to even greater renown as the sire of Secretariat.)
     Tenney was gracious in defeat. “It was a great race and a mighty tough one to lose,” he said, “but I’ll definitely say the better colt won this afternoon.” He didn’t make any excuses, declining even to mention Swaps’s injury—but he did give the colt the rest of the year off. When Swaps came back in 1956 and won eight of his 10 starts, it was his turn to be Horse of the Year.

     Nashua raced from May 1954 to October 1956, Swaps from May 1954 to September 1956. But even though their careers overlapped almost exactly, they met only twice. Of Nashua’s 30 starts, 21 were in New York or New Jersey. Of Swaps’s 25 starts, 18 were in California. We’ll never know what might have happened had they come together for a third contest to settle their rivalry. Regardless, each did quite well going his own way. Nashua was champion two-year-old of 1954, champion three-year-old and Horse of the Year in 1955. Swaps was champion older horse and Horse of the Year in 1956. He closed out his career in Chicago with a victory in the Washington Park Handicap.
     The Washington Park Match Race was a memorable chapter, but far from the only one, in the careers of its principle protagonists: both horses, both jockeys, and both trainers had many triumphs ahead, and all six were destined for the National Racing Hall of Fame. But for William Woodward, Jr., Nashua’s owner, the match race was the last great victory. Less than two months later, he was shot to death in a bedroom of his Long Island estate—by his wife, who evidently mistook him for a burglar. When his executors liquidated Woodward’s assets, his many thoroughbreds included, Nashua fetched a price of $1,251,200. It was the first time that a horse had ever been sold for more than a million dollars.

Adapted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

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