Santa Anita Derby legends: From Swaps to Justify

Santa Anita Derby legends: From Swaps to Justify
Photo: Eclipse Sportswire

With the future of the 2020 edition of the Santa Anita Derby very much in question, I thought it would be fun to look back at the rich and storied history of the most prestigious race for 3-year-olds in California. 

Since its inception 85 years ago, the feature at Santa Anita has consistently produced some of America's most exciting young sophomores. Beginning with the great Swaps back in 1955, let's take a look at some of the biggest legends who made their way to the winner's circle of the Santa Anita Derby.

Swaps was bred in California, and to this day remains on the short list of the state's greatest ever. Little did race fans know when the son of Khaled was unveiled at Hollywood Park in May of his juvenile season what was to come. He won that debut at odds of 12-1, but was still very much a work in progress at 2. He won only 3 of 6 as a juvenile, but by the time his 3-year-old season rolled around, he was ready to dominate. An easy win in the San Vicente led to his first try around two turns in the Santa Anita Derby. A determined victory there sent him on to Louisville. 

Before the Kentucky Derby, Swaps got in a fast 6-furlong allowance race romp, which sharpened him up for a meeting with the heralded 2-year-old champion and the prize of the East, Nashua. Swaps went right to the lead under a young Willie Shoemaker and never looked back, easily holding off his new rival by 1 1/2-lengths.

Swaps would miss the rest of the Triple Crown because of injury, and the two would meet only once more. There it would put an end to a 9-race winning streak of Swaps, as Nashua got the better of him in a ballyhooed match race at Washington Park in Chicago. The Kentucky Derby winning Californian reportedly was less than 100% for the test, though, suffering from a sore foot.

A layoff followed and when he came back, Swaps was better than ever. The "California Comet" won nearly everything in sight at 4, while routinely carrying big weight and breaking track records or even world records. When it was all said and done, he won 19 of 25 starts despite often dealing with nagging injuries. Swaps entered racing's Hall of Fame soon after his retirement.

Several top runners would win the Santa Anita Derby in the years following Swaps, but it was Majestic Prince in 1969 who really captured the attention of the nation. A son of Raise a Native and trained by the legendary former jockey Johnny Longden, he won both of his two starts as a juvenile. Like Swaps, his career took off at 3.

Majestic Prince rattled off wins in the Los Feliz, San Vicente and San Jacinto Stakes before decimating his Santa Anita Derby rivals by 8 lengths. After a blistering win in the Stepping Stone at Churchill Downs, he entered the Kentucky Derby a perfect 7-for-7, but faced a top field that included the 15-length winner of the Blue Grass, Arts and Letters.

The Eastern star gave Majestic Prince everything he wanted in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, but Majestic Prince showed his heart while running his unbeaten record to nine. Unfortunately, he came out of the Preakness with a tendon injury, which prompted Longden to announce that he would not run in the Belmont. 

But Longden was overruled by the owner, and Majestic Prince finished a brave but well beaten second to Arts and Letters in his quest to become racing's 9th Triple Crown winner. It was his first loss in 10 races, and he would never race again. No such unlucky fate would fall on the next great winner of the Santa Anita Derby. 

Already an established champion and part of an excellent rivalry after his juvenile season, Affirmed came to the Santa Anita Derby of 1978 as the undisputed king of a 12-horse field. The copper-colored colt was bet down to odds of 3-10 and lived up to those expectations with an overpowering 8-length win under Laffit Pincay, Jr. 

Reunited with the "Kid" Steve Cauthen in his next race, Affirmed would then win the Hollywood Derby before heading back East to renew his rivalry with Alydar. The two would go on to throw down in each leg of the Triple Crown, but each time Affirmed would hold off his excellent Eastern rival. The Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont of 1978 remain a shining moment in the history of American racing.  

Perhaps suffering from a bit of Triple Crown hangover, Affirmed would suffer through a bit of a losing streak that fall and into the winter, but would come back later at 4 to prove again what a great champion he was, winning his final seven races while cementing back-to-back Horse of the Year titles.

Despite consistently running against the likes of Alydar, Seattle Slew, and Spectacular Bid in his career, Affirmed was still able to win 22 of 29 lifetime. Few would argue his stature as the greatest of all the Santa Anita Derby winners.

Just over a decade later, a new great rivalry developed between an Eastern star and a Western star.

While Easy Goer was already the talk of the nation at 2, Sunday Silence needed a little more time to shine. Surviving a horrible van accident as a youngster, the son of Halo began to show serious talent for trainer Charlie Whittingham late in his juvenile season.

Not rushed by his Hall of Fame trainer, the near black colt was solid in victory in the San Felipe, setting him up for a run in the Santa Anita Derby for his sixth career start. The result there was stunning and eye-opening. Sunday Silence won by 11 lengths, and suddenly it was clear that Easy Goer would have a threat in the Derby.

A threat and then some as Sunday Silence sloshed through the mud to win the big one on the first Saturday in May over his new rival. He proved it was no fluke when he again got the better of Easy Goer two weeks later in perhaps the greatest Preakness ever run.  

His talented and powerhouse of a rival rolled right by him in the 12 furlongs of the Belmont, but Sunday Silence would exact his revenge a few months later in a classic edition of the Breeders' Cup Classic. Never worse than second in 14 lifetime starts, the 1989 winner of the Santa Anita Derby was a deserving entry into racing's Hall of Fame, along with his great rival, shortly after his racing career was complete.

There were many stars who won the Santa Anita Derby after Sunday Silence. Horses such as Winning Colors, A.P. Indy, Point Given, I'll Have Another and California Chrome all parlayed their success at Santa Anita into classic success, but it wasn't until two years ago that the big race would again be the starting point for another Triple Crown season. 

And when we are talking about Justify, "starting point" is barely an exaggeration. Unraced at 2, the son of Scat Daddy did not make his career debut until Feb. 18 of his 3-year-old season. Impressive in breaking his maiden, and then again three weeks later in an allowance race, he made his stakes debut in the Santa Anita Derby. 

Inexperienced or not, Justify proved too good for his Grade 1 rivals, turning back the stiff challenge of Bolt d'Oro with aplomb. That victory sent him to the 2018 Kentucky Derby as the favorite off of only three career starts.

No matter, this was Justify. A full field, fast early pace, and a driving rain storm could not slow down his talent on Derby day. The 2-year-old champion of the previous year, Good Magic, tested him at the top of the lane, but the lightly raced Bob Baffert trainee was simply too good. Not only had he won the Kentucky Derby, but he also put an end to the longstanding "Curse of Apollo", becoming the first horse to win the Derby without having raced at 2 in well over a century.

Bad weather and even worse track conditions in the Preakness tested him, but once again he prevailed. The weather finally relented in New York for the Belmont Stakes, and in what would turn out to be the final race of his career, Justify was a shining example of thoroughbred talent, becoming only the second horse to win the Triple Crown while still undefeated.

Meet Brian Zipse

Brian has been a passionate fan of horse racing his entire life. Taken to the races at a very young age, he has been lucky enough to see all the greats in person from Secretariat, Forego, and Ruffian through Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, American Pharoah and Justify. Before coming to the Nation, Brian displayed his love for the sport through the development of his horse racing website, which quickly became one of the most popular blogs in the game. His new racing partnership venture, Derby Day Racing, invites more fans to experience the thrill of racehorse ownership.

The Editor of Horse Racing Nation from 2010-2017, Brian authored a daily column as Zipse at the Track, created the popular racing show, HorseCenter and added his editorial flare to the overall content of the website. Now a Senior Writer for HRN, Brian continues to contribute his thoughts on racing, as well as hosting HorseCenter. A big supporter of thoroughbred aftercare, he serves as the President of The Exceller Fund.

Brian's work has also been published on several leading industry sites. He has consulted for leading contest site Derby Wars, is both a Hall of Fame and NTRA poll voter, and is a Vox Populi committee member. 

A horse owner and graduate of DePaul University, Brian lives just outside of Louisville with his wife Candice and daughter Kendra.

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