Monday, April 21, 2014

Remembering the Champions: Swale

From the instant he was born, he was destined for greatness.

The son of a Triple Crown champion in Seattle Slew and out of Tuerta -- a daughter of Argentinian Horse of the Year Forli, who herself was a multiple graded stakes winner, the horse who was named after he was found sleeping in a low lying area had all the markings of a future champion

Bred in the Hancock family's historic Claiborne Farm, Swale was trained by the legendary Woody Stephens and despite his propensity for sleeping, the dark bay colt's winning ways showed themselves early, as he captured the G2 Saratoga Special in only his third career start, turning the table on Shuttle Jet, who had defeated him in his debut. He would go on to win three of the four additional starts he made as a two-year-old, which was highlighted by his win in the G1 Young America Stakes at the Meadowlands -- the final race of his juvenile campaign.



Swale began his three-year-old campaign in the G3 Hutcheson, which he won by a whopping eight lengths, before being defeated just ten days later in the G2 Fountain of Youth. He rebounded two weeks later, however, when he won the G1 Florida Derby after again putting his gameness on full display.



It wasn't always pretty, but the son of Seattle Slew had shown a tremendous amount of heart to this point in his career, and yet he was overshadowed by stablemate and 1983 Champion Two-Year-Old Colt Devil's Bag, who was purchased by Claiborne for $36 million after his juvenile season. While the high priced son of Halo's undefeated juvenile campaign was littered with easy victories, Swale had to fight tooth and nail to barely squeak out wins -- leaving him an afterthought when compared to his stablemate who had already been dubbed "the next great champion."

Ultimately, however, Devil's Bag flopped in the G1 Flamingo and was withdrawn from the Kentucky Derby five days before the race, leaving Swale a pinch hitter of sorts, and the sole entry for his ailing trainer who was suffering from pneumonia.

Sent off as the second choice, Swale was in good position just off the pace set by favorite Althea, daughter of the great Alydar, heading down the backstretch before taking the lead in the far turn and never looking back -- opening up down the stretch to win by three and one quarter lengths. He was the first to bring the famed gold silks of Claiborne Farm to the Kentucky Derby winners circle in what would be the only Derby victory for Hall of Fame jockey Laffit Pincay, Jr.



While Swale disappointed in the Preakness when finishing off the board for the first and only time in his career, he bounced back in a big way in the final leg of the American Triple Crown by emphatically winning the race nicknamed "The Test of the Champion." The nearly gate-to-wire victory cemented him as the best of his generation and a legend at the hallowed grounds of Claiborne Farm.

The almost chocolate colored colt had officially blossomed into an American racing star.

Just eight days after his victory at Belmont, however, Swale returned to Woody Stephens' barn to cool off and be bathed following a routine gallop. It was during that bath that the sport's newest champion collapsed -- dying within minutes.

At just three years of age, the horse who went from being relatively ignored to having captured the attention of a nation and making Kentucky Derby dreams come true for both his owners and his jockey was lost -- leaving behind a grave reminder of the fragility of life.

Following his mysterious death, Swale was brought home and at the tender age of three was laid to rest among the champions at Claiborne including French Champion Two-Year-Old Colt Ambiorix, as well as, U.S. Champion Three-Year-Olds Bold Ruler and Buckpasser.

Swale's life and unfortunate passing embodies what racing fans have already come to realize -- that this sport perhaps has more extreme emotional peaks and valleys than any other and that as quickly as a one champion is crowned, he can be lost in the blink of an eye.

But perhaps the more important takeaway from Swale's life is the power of the heart. It was his perseverance that earned him victories and at the end of the day, it was that will to win that triumphed over the other well-bred and high priced colts of his generation.

As the great college basketball coach Jim Valvano once said in the now famous ESPY speech he gave after being diagnosed with cancer "Don't give up...don't ever give up," and the story of Swale, who himself never gave up, is another reminder of the power of grit and gameness, the importance of having dreams, and the notion that if you work hard enough, your dreams can become a reality.

So as you sit down to watch this year's edition of the Kentucky Derby, which will mark the 30th anniversary of the moment the garland of roses was draped over Swale, I urge you to take a moment to remember the lost son of Seattle Slew who on one Saturday in May made dreams come true.




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