For the Love of Thoroughbred Horse Racing!!!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Remembering … Swale

I followed him from the very beginning. I still remember those early maiden races and the horses he battled, Capital South and Shuttle Jet. These would be the same colts that he would contend with in many of New York’s prestigious juvenile stakes, and more often than not, it would be Swale who came out on top. Swale was always good, right from the beginning, and he was a horse who would battle his competition to the finish on almost every occasion. Reported to have never needed a single aspirin, never off his feed, and clearly a fighter on the track, it was all the more shocking to hear of Swale’s demise less than one year after his career began.

It was an early Sunday morning in June of 1984, and Swale, the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes hero, went out for a routine gallop around the Belmont Park oval. Not scheduled to race again until the Fall, the maintenance gallop went smoothly as planned. Not even thirty minutes later, Swale would be gone.

After the gallop, Swale returned to the backstretch, to receive his cooling hose bath. Following the bath, and without warning, the big bay reared and fell over backward. Believed to be dead before he even hit the ground, Swale twitched a few times, then lay still. It was an unfathomable shock to me, I can not possibly imagine what his handlers went through at that fateful moment.

Swale's death occurred only eight days after proving that he was the best sophomore in the nation. His decisive four-length victory in the 116th running of the Belmont Stakes took care of that. I was in the stands that day and I had never been so impressed with the son of Seattle Slew. He reminded me of his sire that day, and that is an enormous compliment. Swale, with rider Laffit Pincay in tow, skipped over the 1 ½ mile distance in 2:27 and 1/5 which was at the time, the fourth fastest Belmont in history. Many had doubted Swale after his disappointing seventh in the Preakness which, of course, prevented him from becoming a Triple Crown winner. But in the Belmont, he left no doubt. Swale took over the race early on and set moderate fractions. His top competition, Preakness winner Gate Dancer, and Withers winner Play On, mounted their challenge to Swale on the far turn to no avail. Swale had more them one unused gear to smoothly accelerate away from the other favorites. Pine Circle rallied up for a strong second, but on this day, and once again, it was all Swale.

If the Belmont proved his superiority, it was the Kentucky Derby that first made him a star. Despite his excellent record as a juvenile, including four graded stakes wins, Swale was not the juvenile champion. In fact, he was considered only the second stringer of trainer Woody Stephens’ barn. The toast of the 1983 racing season was his barnmate, and fellow juvenile colt, Devil’s Bag. While the fleet Devil’s Bag dominated all the headlines, Swale was the one who was still around for the first Saturday in May. Because he had yet to break free of the Devil’s Bag stigma within his own barn, and because he was coming off a loss in the sloppy Lexington Stakes, Derby bettors made the speedy filly Althea the post time favorite for the Run for the Roses. That was a mistake. Swale, carrying the familiar gold silks of Claiborne, dominated the Derby like few horses have. Stalking from the outside, he took over the race on the far turn. As the other horses bunched up behind him looking for the opportunity to launch their bid in the large field, it was the dark bay who was leaving the field behind with every stride. Near the eighth pole, Swale had opened up a five or six length lead, and from there he coasted home on cruise control 3 ¼ lengths clear of Coax Me Chad.

Slightly disrespected until he forced his greatness upon us, Swale was a winner. His stakes wins were all of the graded variety and included the Saratoga Special, Futurity, Breeders’ Futurity, Young America, Hutcheson, Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Belmont. That win in the grade 1 Young America was the first time I saw Swale in person. It was easy for me to like Swale leaving the races that night, as under Eddie Maple, he was much farther off the pace than usual in the 16 horse field. He made his will to win quite evident, as his rally was relentless and irresistible and carried him to victory at the wire, winning by a nose over a talented colt named Disastrous Night. The Belmont, unfortunately would be the last time I saw Swale in person. Those two races, one, the last race of his juvenile season, and the other, the final of his life, spoke volumes as to what kind of horse Swale was. He had the heart and determination it took to stick his nose in front, and the speed and talent to dominate classics. In many ways, he was the closest thing to his great sire I ever saw.

His death was not only shocking, but it was also mysterious. A massive heart attack was believed to have ended Swale's life, but an autopsy performed that same afternoon failed to reveal any damage to the heart. Pathologists weren't sure what had caused the death of the superior athlete. No evidence was found to suggest foul play. Further study remained inconclusive, but many now believe he died from Colitis X, the same disease that claimed the life of another Seattle Slew superstar, Landaluce. Swale was buried where he was born, at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky. At the time of his death, it is believed that the well bred champion had a syndication value of $40 million.

Despite his sudden death, Swale was still able to compile quite a resume. He earned more than 1.5 million dollars in his tragically shortened racing career. Swale won 9 times, and eight stakes, in only 14 starts. He finished out of the money but once, the Preakness. To nobody’s surprise, Swale was posthumously named the outstanding three-year-old male of 1984. I was in the passenger seat of my Mom’s car on the way to the Rockaway Mall when the shocking news of Swale’s death came over the radio. I was speechless. He had looked invincible when I saw him pass The Test of Champions only days before. I remember you Swale.


  1. What a horrible and tragic way to go. It seems that most of our greats seem to go too young. I would've loved for Swale to have lived and continued his dominace that way I could read just how great he was.

  2. Perhaps the biggest loss was in never seeing any Swale offspring.

  3. Devil's Bag, Gate Dancer, Althea, Woody Stephens & Swale...Joe Bollero, Bello, John Riley & Dinner Money, the day Ol' Spooker passed away, getting kicked in the butt by Clarissa Queen when "Bear" spooked her, Churchill Downs, the Derby Museum, hustling for coolouts at the spitbox for extra money...into the time machine. Back to my greenhorn days of wonder and discovery, in a world that will never leave my blood.
    Thank you Brian! :)

  4. It was my first summer on the track and I was still basically a kid then. Everyone was talking about this great Swale. I began to think he was a mythical hero; and when he was gone I was confused - mythical heros dont die, how could he be gone? Because I'd never seen him before he passed, to this day, I still think of him as mythical.

  5. The good ol' days, eh Jane? As someone who saw him dominate the Belmont just days before, it had to be the strangest, saddest news I have heard in this game.

  6. Thanks for the memories as usual you pick the really good stories that have almost slipped away