Thursday, April 30, 2009

Kentucky Derbies Past: Shoe Your Own Derby Winner

Meshach Tenney at the stalljack in Swaps's stall before the 1955 Kentucky Derby. For the uninitiated, Tenney is shaping the heel of an aluminum raceplate in an indentation on a tool called a stalljack, which is a very lightweight replacement for an anvil that has a stake on the end and can be driven into the floor of a stall or shedrow. I didn't know they had them back then; they are very much in use today. Raceplates still come in boxes like the one you see in the straw, and farriers use tool boxes somewhat like the one in the foreground, but more likely in aluminum.

The year was 1955 and a young Mormon horseshoer/trainer/owner from out of the west threw down his bedroll and his shoeing tools in the straw of a stall on the backside of America's most famous racetrack. Meshach Tenney had come to do a job: to take care of his horse and to make sure it won the Kentucky Derby.

Perhaps the most famous and dominant racehorse ever to come out of California, Swaps was another of the great champions who was plagued by foot problems. He developed an infection in the sole of his right front foot after he won the San Vincente Stakes in January of his three-year-old year. Tenney made a leather pad for him--unheard of for a racehorse at the time--and in spite of the layup, sent him out to win the Santa Anita Derby as his only Kentucky Derby prep race.

An ultra-fit chestnut trained by Tenney's scientific principles, Swaps came east to challenge the royally-bred pride-of-the-East, the mighty Nashua, trained by Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons for Belair Stud. It was Seabiscuit vs War Admiral, East vs West all over again.

Just before leaving for the paddock, Tenney looked at the skies and added calks to Swaps' shoes as lightning crackled through the post parade and spooked the horses. But the biggest lightning was inside his horse with the padded and calked foot, who led almost the entire race before drawing away from the best horse in the East.

They hadn't even thought to nominate the horse for the other Triple Crown races. The two former cowboys who owned him thought only as far ahead as winning the Kentucky Derby and giving ten percent of the winnings to their church.

That night, Tenney rewarded himself by sleeping in the backseat of a car instead of in the stall with his horse.
Later that year, Nashua beat Swaps in a match race, but Swaps had re-injured his foot the day before. One observer said, "He was so sore he didn't know where to put that foot down." Swaps underwent hoof surgery after the race.

Tenney was smart to keep his shoeing tools close at hand; Swaps was plagued with foot problems throughout his career. From the vague way that reports are written, it sounds like he had recurrent sole abscesses in the same foot, but it is hard to be sure. At four, he popped a quarter crack in the same foot. He earned the nickname "The California Cripple", but he kept coming back.

Later in his career, Swaps was in training at Garden State Race Track when he suffered one of the most highly-publicized broken legs in horseracing history. Like a foreshadowing of the Barbaro saga to come, Swaps was diagnosed with what was then called dual linear fractures of his cannon bone in one hind leg. He was fitted with a cast, but hated it, and kicked his stall's wall, making the fracture worse. A more involved cast with metal rods extending under the foot was built for him.

Swaps was insured for $1 million, so there was a lot at stake. A sling was rigged in his stall and Swaps was hung from the ceiling for six weeks. Oddly enough, the sling was loaned to Tenney by his arch-rival, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, the trainer of Nashua. Probably thanks in large part to Tenney's hands-on care and companionship, Swaps never suffered any ill effects from being nonweightbearing for so long. He walked out of the sling and was shipped home to California, where he began his stud career.

Thanks to the annals of Sports Illustrated and The Blood-Horse, which were used in compiling this hoof-centric account of Swaps' career. Both photos are from Life Magazine's coverage of the 1955 Kentucky Derby.

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