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A Day That Was Hard to Match

Fifty years ago, two racing legends met as millions watched on TV. Nashua got revenge, Swaps had excuses, and the horses would never meet again.

August 31, 2005|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

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.

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