What they said about Swaps before the Kentucky Derby, 1955

May 3rd 2014 12:09 am |

This year’s Kentucky Derby has a West Coast theme. The likely favorite for the race, California Chrome, is trained by long-time Golden State trainer Art Sherman. Sherman has a connection to a significant moment in racing and California history. In 1955, Swaps became the first “All-California” colt to win the Kentucky Derby. Sherman worked for Swaps trainer, ‘Mesh’ Tenney, and accompanied the ’55 Derby winner by train to Churchill Downs. Sherman will saddle California Chrome on Saturday nearly sixty years after being track side to watch Swaps beat the heavily favored Nashua.

With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at Swaps’ Derby, and some of the coverage that led up to his big day on May 7th 1955.

For many months leading up to the race, most thought only two colts stood a legitimate chance to win that year’s Kentucky Derby. Even though Swaps won the Santa Anita Derby, a race won by the 1954 Kentucky Derby winner Determine, he stood among the outsiders all winter and spring. Things changed six days before the gates opened for the eighty-first edition of the historic race. After shipping to Kentucky by train, Swaps, who hadn’t raced in nearly two months, ran in a six furlong allowance over the Churchill track on Sunday May 1st. That race changed the narrative around the lead-up to Derby.

Los Angeles Times race writer Paul Lowry reported the following on May 2nd in the Monday edition of his newspaper:

Until Swaps’ brilliant performance yesterday the race was considered strictly a two-horse affair between Nashua and Summer Tan. The California colt changed this by running well in hand all the way and missing the six-furlong track record by only one-fifth of a second.”1

Legendary sportswriter Shirley Povich in his “This Morning” column, on the same day in the Washington Post, echoed that same sentiment when he wrote:

The Kentucky race is getting a break…with the new clamor over the California-owned Swaps, which has horned into what was taking on the aspect of a two-horse race between Nashua and Summer Tan…Nashua is certain to go to post odd-on in Derby but recent developments have forestalled anything like the threat that Nashua would be backed down to as low as 2 to 5. Swaps, winner of the $100,000 Santa Anita Derby, has been working sensationally, and folks are remembering, too, that California graduated Determine into the winner’s circle last year.”2

By the time sport writers began typing their Kentucky Derby previews for the Friday and Saturday editions of the newspapers, nothing had changed about the race favorite. Charles Hatton writing in the DRF wrote:

It is abundantly clear, as the date of the running nears, that William Woodward, Jr.’s homegrown Nashua will be a staunch favorite, most likely at odds on, regardless of track condition.”3

While all agreed with Hatton that Nahusa was the one to beat and a deserving favorite, Swaps, the third choice on the morning line at 8-1, had emerged as a legitimate contender.

Shirley Povich’s esteemed colleague at the Post, race writer Walter Haight, predicted that Swaps would get more play than the morning line second choice Summer Tan:

Although Mrs. J.W. Galbreath’s Summer Tan has the most Nasua experience – he beat him once and was beaten four times – there’s a tendency among the gathered writers to make Rex Ellsworth’s, Swaps, the all-California colt, second choice.”4

Another Washington Post columnist, Bob Addie, closed his May 7th column with: “Which horse do I like…Nashua…But, for a long shot, watch Swaps, he’s real fast.”5

In the exhaustive coverage of the race in the Derby Day edition of the Daily Racing Form on May 7th, Swaps’ story was covered in great detail by Oscar Otis in two stories. Under the headline, “Swaps Could Shatter Precedent,” Otis wrote about his potential place in history:

There has never been a California-bred, -raised, -owned, -trained, and -raced horse to win the Kentucky Derby. And Swaps is the only horse in this year’s Derby that could shatter that precedent…”6

Otis also wrote about Swap’s jockey Willie Shoemaker trying to win his first Derby in his fourth attempt:

If Shoemaker can win the Derby with Swaps, he will make all California happy, for sure, and satisfy an ambition he has had ever since he knew for sure that was a success in his saddle profession.”7

In short bios written for the trainers of all the Derby entries, the capsule for Swap’s trainer Meshach “Mesh” Tenney included high praise. The DRF called Tenney “one of the best horsemen” in California and an “exceptionally hard worker [who] oversees every detail himself.” This is a reference to Tenney’s literal “hands on” approach. Not only did he train the colt he also served as his own farrier. He put shoes on Swaps himself – as unheard of today as it was back then.8

All five experts in the DRF picked Nashua to win with two picking Swaps to finish second. All five had Nashua on top with either Summer Tan or Swaps finishing second or third. ‘Sweep’ in his comments wrote that Nashua “Rates the Laurels,” called Summer Tan the “main contender,” and that Swaps “showed fitness” in his prep race at Churchill.9

Finally, the last word goes to the great Charley Hatton who opened his headlining Derby preview for the Daily Racing Form with this:

This is the hour of decision and a time for greatness. Ten of a possible 125 horses, culled from the many thousands foaled two years ago, and representing telescopic centuries of selective breeding and horsemanship, have been named for this, the eighty first and most lucrative of all the Kentucky Derbys with $125,000 added, the richest added money event in the world.”

Hatton, as he stated in his Derby coverage the day before, made it clear that Nashua stood as the clear horse to beat and predicted that his odds would dip below the 4-5 printed in the official program. However, he made some telling comments about Swaps in his preview.

Hatton concluded his piece by referencing the California colt’s near track record at six furlongs a week before the Derby:

Trainer ‘Mickey’ Tenney, incidentally, himself plates Swaps, whose race last weekend gave many residents of Derbytown the impression he is going to require an exciting amount of catching in the history making mile and a quarter this Saturday.”10

Here is how Nashua and Swaps looked in their past performances in the DRF on Derby day:



When the gates opened at 4:31 local time on May 7th 1955 at the track in Louisville, bettors had knocked Swaps’ morning line 8-1 down to 3-1. As the prescient Charley Hatton predicted, they would need to catch Swaps.

Listen to Bryan Field’s radio call of the 1955 Kentucky Derby:


News & Notes

I wrote a couple of articles for other outlets that you might want to check out — including my $100 Derby bet article for CBS Local (I’m due to hit one of these…this is the year!):

Derby History Watch (Raceday360)

Kentucky Derby: California Chrome Primed to Shine (CBS Local)
(Note: Published prior to Hoppertunity scratch)

How I’d Bet $100 on the Kentucky Derby (CBS Local)

I had a chance to visit Atlantic City Race Course last Saturday with my buddy Chad. ACRC is falling apart but I love that place. If you have never been, be sure to add it to your “must visit” list before its gone. I have written a few articles about its history…read them all here

Good luck and enjoy this year’s Kentucky Derby!


  1. “Swaps Stock Rises After Win,” Los Angeles Times, 2 May 1955 []
  2. “This Morning…Shirley Povich,” The Washington Post, 2 May 1955 []
  3. “Ten Derby Hopes Await Call to Post,” Daily Racing Form, 6 May 1955 []
  4. “Bad Bay 4-5 Favorite in Derby Today,” Washington Post, 7 May 1955 []
  5. “Bob Addie’s Column…,” Washington Post, 7 May 1955 []
  6. “Swaps Could Shatter Precedent,” Daily Racing Form, 7 May 1955 []
  7. “Shoemaker on Swaps in Fourth Bid for Kentucky Derby Score,” Daily Racing Form, 7 May 1955 []
  8. “Trainers of Derby Contestants,” Daily Racing Form, 7 May 1955 []
  9. “Daily Racing Form Experts’ Selections,” Daily Racing Form, 7 May 1955 []
  10. “Nashua Tops Ten House Field in $152,500 Kentucky Derby,” Daily Racing Form, 7 May 1955 []

Filed in 1955,Kentucky Derby,Swaps

3 Responses to “What they said about Swaps before the Kentucky Derby, 1955”

  1. Nabil Bajjaly says:

    I think we have a real good chance for a triple crown winner. Chrome looks like the real deal. Did it with ease. This horse still has a lot under the hood.

  2. ballyfager says:

    Love your columns. But, just to set the record straight, Atlantic City was never ever on a par with Garden State and Monmouth.

    • John says:

      Have to disagree with that.

      When New Jersey and A.C. were at its prime, they were part of a circuit that began with GSP opening in the spring and culminating on Memorial Day with the running of the Jersey Derby, which was sometimes used as a springboard to the Belmont Stakes; Jaipur (1962) and Hail to All (1965) won both the Jersey Derby and the Belmont Stakes.

      The scene would soon shift thereafter to Monmouth Park, where they would race until mid-August.

      Atlantic City picked up the action then and raced until early October, when the racing colony would move back to GSP, which usually closed in late November.

      The introduction of pari-mutuel racing to Pennsylvania in 1969 (or was it ’68) was the biggest dagger in the heart of ACRC. Liberty Bell and then Keystone ran during ACRC’s meet, although wouldn’t go head to head with GSP during the 1970s. That would happen later after Bob Brennan rebuilt GSP.

      But from the late 1940s, when it opened, until the early 1970s, ACRC was on a par with GSP and Monmouth Park.