Saturday’s performance by California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby took our breath away, just as his San Felipe did a month ago. This time, he didn’t get the quick, almost quarter horse-like start that he got in March. Coming awkwardly away from the gate, he settled off the pace and loomed up on the outside as they rounded the far turn. Espinoza said, “Go”…and boy, did he go. Powering away to an open-lengths lead, he shortened his strides near the end, ears pricked and eyes bright, as if to say, “Are you guys gonna catch me any time soon?”
Every Derby Trail needs an electrifying contender in its ranks; this colt may be one of the most popular in recent years.
Trainer Art Sherman said to the press after his win, “He’s my Swaps.” That means a lot, considering the 77 year-old horseman was up close and personal with the 1955 Kentucky Derby winner, as his exercise rider. And yes, California Chrome lovers have drawn many comparisons to that star of the mid-20th century – both are Cal-breds, both have wicked speed, and both, well, have Art Sherman close by.
But maybe it was meant to be this way. Swaps – or at least, his third dam, anyway – can be found deep within California Chrome’s pedigree.
Betty Derr was a decent filly, especially at two, winning a handful of stakes. Trained by Clyde Van Dusen, who would train her brother – and his own namesake – to win a Kentucky Derby, she won over $40,000 in purses. The foal that would cement her as a broodmare was Iron Maiden, whose blood ran thickly Triple Crown: her sire, War Admiral, had won the event, and grandsire Sir Gallahad was the sire of Gallant Fox, who in turn sired Omaha, both of them Triple Crown winners. And though this family didn’t produce a Triple Crown winner, it did give us two Derby winners – could a third be in the mix? But I’m getting ahead of myself, now.
Iron Liege was the second. By Bull Lea, sire of Citation, he won a third of his 33 starts, including the 1957 Kentucky Derby, and earned more than ten times as much as his granddam had on the track. But his older half-sister Iron Reward would produce a colt that outshone him on the track. This was the beginning of Betty Derr’s Derby legacy. His name was Swaps.
Swaps was fast…freaky fast. He set four world records and equaled two. He won 19 of his 25 starts and only finished off the board twice. The gleaming chestnut colt arrived in Louisville for the Run for the Roses after a victory in the Santa Anita Derby, and he did not disappoint his fans. He captured the Kentucky Derby in a time that was only 2/5 off the track record, proving that his blazing California speed was no fluke.
Would he have won the Triple Crown? We’ll never know – he didn’t give it a shot. Nashua took home the Preakness and the Belmont while Swaps dominated his rivals on the West Coast. In a match race between the two at the end of 1955, Nashua got the jump on Swaps and won. The Derby winner called it quits for the year, but then was back again as a four year-old, winning nearly all of his starts.
A grandson of the English hero Hyperion, Swaps was decent at stud, siring champion mares Affectionately and Primonetta and Kentucky Derby winner Chateaugay. His racing career, however, will always be held in high regard. He is ranked 20th on Bloodhorse’s Top 100 Champions of the 20th Century – 4 in front of his rival, Nashua.
This is where Swaps’ story ends and California Chrome’s story begins, but could this new chestnut star merely be a continuation of his predecessor’s legacy?
Betty Derr had another daughter named Judy-Rae, who was by Beau Pere – the damsire of Swaps. A minor stakes winner, Judy-Rae produced fillies whose descendants include leading sires Arch and Green Desert, and Wickerr (by Nashua) who has a stakes named after him in Southern California. The daughter of hers that relates to this story is Princess Matoaka, an unraced Kentucky-bred. Her daughter, Princess Ribot, was stakes-placed and also a Kentucky-bred.
In fact, none of California Chrome’s female predecessors were bred in California, nor was his sire, the flashy Lucky Pulpit. But here we are, comparing Swaps and California Chrome – because they are both speedy, popular, and California-bred.
You could chalk it up to coincidence that the Swaps-Chrome conversation is happening all over the country, but the evidence is right in front of you. This is a family affair, and it all started with a stakes-winning mare who became the matriarch of not one, but two, Kentucky Derby winners.
Could California Chrome make it three?