Triple Crown Near-Misses: Nashua Runs Into Swaps

Swaps leading Nashua in the 1955 Kentucky Derby.
Swaps leads Nashua in the 1955 Kentucky Derby.

Nashua was destined to be the new superhorse, a colt that would wipe away the Triple Crown failure of Native Dancer and restore order to horse racing. Trained by the legendary “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons and ridden by Eddie Arcaro, he had won 8 of 10 races as a 2-year-old, good enough for Champion 2-Year-Old Male in 1954. And he started 1955 the same way, winning his first four races – including the Flamingo Stakes, Florida Derby and Wood Memorial.

But from the West came a newcomer: Swaps. He had won only three of six starts at 2 but was riding a four-race winning streak. Fitzsimmons didn’t think much of the western colt and his cowboy trainers and owners – so little, in fact, that he instructed Arcaro before the Kentucky Derby to keep an eye on Nashua’s rival Summer Tan instead of Swaps.

West Beats East

Swaps took an early 1-1/2 length lead in the Derby, with Nashua 4 lengths behind, Arcaro taking his instructions and waiting for Summer Tan to make his move on the front-runner. When the move never materialized, Arcaro set his sights on Swaps and his jockey, Bill Shoemaker. He got to within a half a length at the head of the homestretch, but Swaps had a final kick that put Nashua away; he won by 1 1/2 lengths in a shocking upset. 

Swaps, however, was done with Triple Crown racing; his handlers shipped him back west, leaving Nashua to mop up the rest of the Crown. He didn’t disappoint, Going to Maryland as the 3-10 favorite, he lurked back in fourth place behind Saratoga, who set a blistering pace. When Nashua made his move, though, Saratoga refused to relent, and the two horses raced down the homestretch together, Nashua finally pulling away in the final eighth to win by a length in 1:54 3/5 – a track record.

In the Belmont, it was all Nashua, who was the 3-20 odds-on favorite. Little Dell tried to make a race of it, leading Nashua by 3 lengths after a half-mile, but Nashua made his move approaching the far turn, led by 2 1/2 lengths entering the homestretch, and eventually lengthened that lead to nine lengths over 37-1 long shot Blazing Count.

Swaps won 8 of 9 races that year, his only loss coming in a match race with Nashua on August 31, 1955. Swaps had a foot ailment that day, and although he made several runs at Nashua, Nashua never relented and pulled away at the end,¬†winning by 6 1/2 lengths. The victory cemented Nashua’s chances at being named Horse of the Year, as well as Champion 3-Year-Old Male Horse.

Hall of Famers

Nashua finished the year with 10 wins in 12 starts. For his career, he won 22 of 30 starts and finished out of the money only three times. He stood at Spendthrift Farm in Kentucky, siring 77 stakes winners, and was the damsire of 122 stakes winners, including the acclaimed stallion Mr. Prospector.

Swaps won 19 of 25 races, finishing out of the money only twice. He was also a success at stud, siring 35 stakes winners, including 1963 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Chateaugay.

The two horses met only twice; both are in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.