A Day That Was Hard to Match
Don Ameche, Marje Everett was saying, was a good friend of her father, Ben Lindheimer.
In fact, the late movie star for a time was the titular head of the old Los Angeles Dons, Lindheimer’s team in the 1940s All-America Football Conference.
There was a chance meeting between Ameche and William Woodward Jr. at “21" in New York. They both raced horses, Ameche sometimes in partnership with Lindheimer, Woodward with the renowned Belair Stud.
This was 1955, and Woodward’s Nashua, who’d lost to Swaps in the Kentucky Derby, had waltzed through the other Triple Crown races after Swaps had gone back to California.
The story goes that Rex Ellsworth, the owner of Swaps, wanted another shot at Nashua, and Ameche passed that along to Woodward at “21,” the fancy Manhattan restaurant with the jockeys’ statues in front.
Finding Woodward receptive, Ameche called Lindheimer, who owned Washington Park and Arlington Park, a couple of suburban Chicago racetracks.
“A lot of tracks wanted to stage the race between those two horses,” said Everett, retired chief executive at Hollywood Park. “But my father put up $100,000, winner take all, and the match race was made.”
Fifty years ago, on Aug. 31, 1955, a country still widely enamored of horse racing was captivated by the prospect of these Derby foes meeting again.
Race day was a Wednesday afternoon, the final day of the Washington Park meet. A crowd of 35,262 showed up, and CBS’ telecast was watched by an estimated 50 million. The morning of the race, the Daily Racing Form came out with an issue devoting 12 pages to Nashua and Swaps.
The buildup was hardly necessary. This was East vs. West, during an era when horses seldom crossed the country to run.
Swaps’ owner and breeder, Ellsworth, and his trainer, the wily Mesh Tenney, were cowboys who could have escaped from Central Casting. Ellsworth, from Safford, Ariz., had started in racing in the early 1930s by buying eight horses with his last $600.
Woodward, only 35, was a New York blueblood whose family had won the Triple Crown with Gallant Fox in 1930 and Omaha in 1935.
Jockey Eddie Arcaro and Nashua’s trainer, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons -- who’d also had Gallant Fox and Omaha -- blamed themselves for Nashua’s loss in the Derby. Mainly, they were guilty of believing Churchill Downs’ morning line, which had Nashua at 4-5 and Summer Tan at 2-1. Swaps, the interloper from the West Coast, was an overlay at 8-1.
Fitzsimmons was ill, and remained in New York for the Derby, but by phone he told Arcaro, “Watch Summer Tan. When he makes his move, you make yours and you’ll win the race.”
Summer Tan had beaten Nashua the previous year and had almost beaten him again in the Wood Memorial, run two weeks before the Derby.
Ted Atkinson, not a suspended Arcaro, had ridden Nashua in the Wood, but Arcaro watched from the press box at the old Aqueduct track in Queens, N.Y., and came to the same pre-Derby conclusion as Mr. Fitz.
“How could you not?” Arcaro said in an interview with the historian Jim Bolus 16 years later. “Who would you zero in on but Summer Tan?”
Swaps, the Santa Anita Derby winner, already had an 8 1/2 -length sprint win at Churchill Downs and went off a more realistic 5-2 in the Kentucky Derby, the second choice to Nashua.
In the 10-horse field, there was no speed to speak of, and Bill Shoemaker, despite Tenney’s instructions, let Swaps break on top right out of the gate. They stayed that way all the way around, beating Nashua by 1 1/2 lengths.
“I let Shoemaker have an easy lead, with nobody bothering him,” Arcaro told Bolus. “Every time I moved up on Swaps, he moved away. Swaps beat us -- he flat beat us -- but if you could rerun it, I’d have run up and got Swaps. At least I’d have run up to him in the middle of the backstretch and made him go to running.”
Summer Tan finished third, beaten by eight lengths.
Ellsworth, who hadn’t nominated Swaps for the Preakness, three weeks later, also declined to pay a $7,500 supplementary fee to make him eligible. There were rumors that Swaps’ right front foot, which he had injured early in the year at Santa Anita, was aching again.
Nashua won the Preakness in track-record time, then two weeks after that, won the Belmont by nine lengths.
Arcaro’s explanation of Nashua’s defeat in the Derby began taking on greater currency, which irked Ellsworth and Tenney.
Swaps arrived in Chicago early, in time to win the American Derby, a grass race, Aug. 20. He had won three races at Hollywood Park, by almost 20 lengths, after the Kentucky Derby, and went into the match race undefeated in eight starts as a 3-year-old.
Nashua rolled on after the Belmont, winning a betless Dwyer Stakes at Aqueduct when only two other horses showed up, then got the best of Traffic Judge in the Arlington Classic, a race that was closer than expected.
“Nashua could run all day,” Arcaro once said, “but he would worry you to death. He’d have a horse beat, but he’d just stay there and keep the horse beat by a neck or a head, instead of running off and leaving him. He beat some awful horses just a little ways.”
Before the match race, Nashua had been beaten only twice, other than in the Derby, in 17 starts.
Arcaro was 39, Shoemaker 24. The older jockey, three years from election to the Racing Hall of Fame, was still at the height of his game. But it wouldn’t be long before Shoemaker, who had won 485 races in 1953, would replace Arcaro in the jockeys’ firmament.
On Aug. 31, 1955, though, Arcaro would leave Shoemaker with one lasting lesson before he passed the baton.
“We had a lot of rain the night before the race,” Marje Everett recalled. “There was a horrible rainstorm, and that affected Swaps.”
Dave Garroway did his “Today” television show from the track the morning of the race. In the crowd that afternoon were Sugar Ray Robinson, who in a few months would regain the world middleweight boxing title he’d given up in a premature retirement; Earl Long, the governor of Louisiana, and Conrad Hilton, the hotel magnate.
The track was listed as good. Nashua had drawn the inside post, and would break from the No. 2 stall, two inside of Swaps, the 3-10 favorite.
Shoemaker told his biographer, Barney Nagler, that before the race, Tenney called Harry Silbert, Shoemaker’s agent. The trainer told Silbert about Swaps’ bad foot, but asked him not to tell Shoemaker.
“They figured that if I knew, I would pull up the first time Swaps took a bad step,” Shoemaker said. " ... I think Ellsworth and Tenney thought Swaps could handle the situation, even with a bad foot.”
In an interview with The Times several years before he died, Tenney said, “Swaps had what might best be described as athlete’s foot in the right front. The tender area was about the size of a dime, and it bothered him about four or five times in his career. It was touchy, and there was no way he should have run when it bothered him.”
Warming up Swaps, Shoemaker sensed that something was wrong.
“I felt that his action wasn’t right, but I thought it was because the track was muddy in spots,” Shoemaker said.
The day before the race, Tenney had put a leather pad on the bad foot for protection. But the track was muddy, and mud got inside the pad. Shoemaker thought later that probably worsened Swaps’ infection.
“We were committed,” Tenney said. “The whole world was going to see those horses run. The foot didn’t flare up until the day before the race, but we decided to run, anyway, because it really didn’t hurt him.”
When the gate opened, Arcaro broke Nashua on top. There wasn’t going to be any repeat of the Kentucky Derby.
“Eddie got Nashua running in the dry part of the track,” Shoemaker said. “Swaps wasn’t ready. He was almost turned sideways when the gate swung open, and he began bearing out from the start. Me and Swaps were in the wet part of the track. Nashua, in the dry alley, outran us to the first turn. I had no strategy, and Arcaro was in the driver’s seat.”
Nashua was a length and a half to two lengths ahead most of the way. He ran the opening half-mile in 46 seconds, three-quarters of a mile in 1:10 2/5 .
Tenney said, “Arcaro got off to that bronco pace and every time our horse got up to Nashua with that bad foot, he couldn’t pass him.”
At no time did it appear that Swaps was going to rally and win. Nashua, who was 6-5, won by 6 1/2 lengths, in 2:04 1/5 .
“Arcaro rode like the champ he was,” Shoemaker said. “Even if he hadn’t, I’m not sure that Swaps could have beaten Nashua, anyway. The mistake was mine. I made no excuses because Eddie Arcaro, the master, just gave me a lesson.”
The press was skeptical about Swaps’ running with a bad foot.
“Ellsworth, Tenney and Shoemaker didn’t say anything about lameness or a bad foot when they were questioned exhaustively immediately following the race,” wrote Evan Shipman in the Morning Telegraph. “All that came later. The colt showed no signs of lameness.”
But Swaps was sent back to California, underwent surgery on the foot and didn’t run the rest of the year. Nashua, who beat older horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup in October, went on to the horse-of-the-year title and was voted best 3-year-old. Both horses ran in 1956, but not against each other, and Swaps, winning eight of 10 starts, was voted horse of the year.
“The Derby was the true race,” Tenney said. “Nashua would never have beaten our horse.”
Match races are largely confections from another era, though, and largely inconclusive.
“All this race proved,” wrote Joe Estes in American Racehorses of 1955, “was that Nashua with four good feet was much better than Swaps with three.”