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 Swaps’ footsteps.
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 1955.
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 the Derby.
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.