A blazing streak of copper, Swaps was dubbed the “California
Comet.” He was the king of the West Coast, the Golden State’s pride and joy.
With a victory in America’s most revered race – the Kentucky Derby – and
multiple world record times to his credit, Swaps offered the state of California
hope as he proved wrong the doubts of many racing professionals and enthusiasts
from across the nation.
California racing, although it has presented some of the finest moments in the
history of the Sport of Kings, has never received the respect that is enjoyed
by states on the East Coast – particularly Kentucky, New York, and Florida. And
California-breds certainly are not looked at in the same light as Kentucky
bluebloods. Then Swaps came along.
Although Swaps’ pedigree was rather imperial, his birthplace was not. Born in
the dry land of California on Rex Ellsworth’s ranch, Swaps was raised
differently than most Thoroughbred racehorse prospects and was never coddled.
Some say that was why the son of Khaled was so injury prone. Others deem the
way he was handled was why he was so successful. In twenty-five starts, Swaps
won some of the most prestigious races in the United States, including the
Kentucky Derby and Hollywood Gold Cup, and set or equaled an astounding six world
records. Honored as the 1956 Horse of the Year, Swaps’ brilliance earned him a
place in the United States Racing Hall of Fame in 1966.
Along for the ride during Swaps’ legendary career was Art Sherman. At just
eighteen years old, Sherman rode in the same train car as the California Comet
as the horse traveled from California to Kentucky for the Run for the Roses. As
the exercise rider for Swaps, Sherman was at Churchill Downs when the
California underdog defeated the East Coast’s superstar, Nashua, to capture the
Kentucky Derby. 59 years later, he returned with another California Comet, so
to say, in California Chrome.
Sherman, who had become a jockey after his career as an exercise rider, has
trained racehorses since his riding career ended in 1979. He has saddled
several grade one winners – Haimish Hy, Lang Field, Siren Lure, and Ultra Blend
– among them, but his name has rarely graced racing’s major headlines. But then
another California-bred chestnut stepped into his life and changed that.
The first horse bred by Perry and Denise Martin, and Steve and Carolyn Coburn,
California Chrome was an eye-catcher, but certainly he would not be the horse
to change Sherman’s career. His unwanted dam, Love the Chase, had cost the
Martins and Coburns just $8,000. To breed her to California stallion Lucky
Pulpit, they had only spent $2,500. In reality, it had cost them a mere $10,500
to own California Chrome. Cheap California-breds are not supposed to accomplish
some of racing’s greatest feats. Surely California Chrome couldn’t follow in
At least, it seemed that way in the beginning. California Chrome displayed
potential as a juvenile with a maiden win at Hollywood Park and an easy win in
the Graduation Stakes against state-breds, but three off-the-board finishes in
stakes races did not offer much hope that he was a Derby horse. But something
changed on December 22.
It was one of the saddest days in the history of racing. It was the final day
of racing at Hollywood Park, the same track where Swaps had recorded or matched
five world records and had won nine stakes races, including the track’s
signature race: the Hollywood Gold Cup. Despite the rich history that had been
created over the course of seventy-five years of racing at Hollywood Park, the
doors would forever close to the Inglewood, California track. With a heavy
heart, racing fans said goodbye to a staple of American racing.
But that same day also marked the day California Chrome became a superstar. In
the final stakes race ever contested at Hollywood, the King Glorious Stakes,
California Chrome romped by 6 ¼ lengths. From there, California Chrome only
continued his dominance. He entered the Kentucky Derby off of four consecutive
victories with a combined winning margin of 24 ¼ lengths.
And so Sherman returned to Churchill Downs for the Run for the Roses, this time
with his own charge. During the time he spent in Louisville, he paid a visit to
an old friend. The final resting place of Swaps, who had originally been buried
at Spendthrift Farm near Lexington, is located at the Kentucky Derby Museum at
Churchill Downs. Days out from the Derby, Sherman stopped by the grave and
murmured a prayer, asking that California Chrome exhibit talent similar to
Swaps on Derby Day.
Despite his brilliance and his favoritism, much doubt surrounded California
Chrome’s ability to win the Derby. Before him, only three other California-breds,
including Swaps, had captured the Kentucky Derby. No California-bred had
accomplished the feat since 1962. Racing experts, handicappers, and fans found
every reason possible to go against the favorite: California Chrome can’t win outside of California, California Chrome
needs the lead, California Chrome can’t last a mile and one-quarter, California
Chrome won’t like the Churchill Downs surface, California Chrome won’t break
well, California Chrome won't live up to the hype.
Perhaps history was running against him. Or maybe it was running with
him. Although far back in his pedigree, Swaps is present in the ancestry of
Sherman’s superstar. Love the Chase’s two crosses of the blue hen mare Numbered
Account gave him a pair of connections to the 1955 Derby winner. As he loaded
into the starting gate 59 years after Swaps had done the same, he was carrying
the legacy of the California Comet.
Although California Chrome broke a bit outwardly, he got away to a clean start
and quickly joined the early leaders as the horses thundered before the
grandstand for the initial time. As long shot Chitu raced to the lead on the
outside, joining Uncle Sigh, jockey Victor Espinoza took this opportunity to
allow California Chrome to drop back slightly, settling into a comfortable
position just behind the frontrunners as the horses raced into the famous first
turn at Churchill Downs.
After a steady first quarter of 23.04 was set, California Chrome remained near
the inside in third as the three-year-olds entered the backstretch, allowing
Uncle Sigh and Chitu just over a length advantage. Beginning to angle to the
outside, California Chrome edged closer to the leaders as the backstretch began
to give way to the far turn. Collaring Chitu and Uncle Sigh around the final
bend as Samraat grew even with him, California Chrome seized a narrow lead as
the field turned for home.
The large crowd became deafening as the favorite stormed to the lead, beginning
to power away from his army of adversaries. In a display of dominance,
California Chrome kicked clear from the sea of horses. A rally from long shot
Commanding Curve threatened his winning margin but not his victory. To the
delight of his connections and his proponents, California Chrome galloped under
the wire 1 ¾ lengths ahead, kicking clear of his rivals like Swaps had done in
However, the similarity in the colts’ Triple Crown experiences ends there. Swaps’
Triple Crown run ended with the Kentucky Derby. The horse was not nominated for
all three legs of the prestigious series, so it was back to California the
chestnut colt went. From there, the colt impressed the world with his many
record-setting victories, leaving racing analysts and fans to wonder the wistful
question of “What could have been?”
59 years later, California Chrome looks to continue Swaps’ legacy and
accomplish something the California Comet could not do – something that has not
been done in 36 years. California Chrome is now paving a path that Sherman has
not taken – the path that leads from Churchill Downs to Pimlico, and,
hopefully, from there to Belmont. On Saturday, California Chrome will endeavor
to keep Triple Crown hopes alive in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), the second
leg of the Triple Crown. If he wins that race, he will travel to New York in
hopes of becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. These
were races Swaps never had the chance to run in – races in which Sherman has
never tasted triumph. 18-year-old Sherman’s Triple Crown run culminated with
Now 77-years-old, Sherman’s Triple Crown run is the talk of the
nation. California Chrome is his pride and joy, the horse that holds Sherman’s
chance at a place among racing legends. Swaps set multiple world records, but
should California Chrome accomplish what no horse has done in 36 years, it will
be a record that will send the sport of American horse racing into a state of
euphoria, that it so desperately needs.