Just a Heart Beat Away
 By Chris Antley Memorial   •   8th Mar 2010   •   11,047 views   •   6 comments
SwaleIt was this young Thoroughbred's heart that brought him first at the finish line of two of America's cherished races. His victories brought joy to the hearts of his jockey and trainer. This horse was Claiborne Farm's horse and they loved him. Not only for what he had done, but for what he would do as the farm's stallion. His blood continuing a dynasty.

And then, quite suddenly, but with shocking finality, his heart stopped and he was gone.

This is the story of Swale.

In this age of change there has been one constant. The Hancock family has been synonymous with Claiborne Farm for 100 continuous years. It’s a dynasty, unparallel in all of the sport, an empire of the Sport of Kings. However, it is not just the family that exemplifies unsurpassed heritage and history. Though founded in Virginia, the farm has been a stable to the Kentucky landscape since 1915.

Those who have roamed the farm nursery comprise a highlight reel for racing’s Hall of Fame. Claiborne stallions have sired six of the eleven Triple Crown winners. And having included Nasrullah and his son Bold Ruler. And later, in the same stall, Bold Ruler's son, perhaps the greatest of them all, the immortal Secretariat.

Generations of Hancocks, horses and workers all have one goal....the Kentucky Derby winners circle. For seven decades Claiborne farm had bred and raised horses for others who had tasted victory in the Kentucky Derby. But no Claiborne jockey wearing the famous gold silks, has ever raised the Derby trophy.

With each passing year, with each mating, the Derby dream intensified.

Bull Hancock awaited the birth of each foal with the anticipation of a Derby horse. Early in 1970, Bull Hancock drove to Claiborne's foaling barn, like he did for over two decades. The farm had produced champions for Claiborne, champions for others. It has even delivered legends Bold Ruler and Round Table on the same night. But it has yet to hold what Bull Hancock wanted most, the farm's elusive derby winner. On this night, one of Claiborne's best mares had delivered her seventh foal. Bull had high hopes that this time she had finally given him what he desired most.

The mare had a filly. Bull Hancock wanted a colt. And not only that, but the filly only had one eye. They named the filly Tuerta, which means "one-eyed" in Spanish. She became a three time stakes winner and she became the last horse Bull Hancock would see carry Claiborne's gold silks to victory.

His son Seth Hancock stood up and took his father's place after his death in 1972. Unfortunately, there were enormous state taxes that had to be payed and all of the Claiborne horses had to be sold. However, they didn't sell every horse. They kept one very special mare, Tuerta.

Soon Claiborne Farm was back up and running again, as the world's greatest breeding farm. Claiborne still had its dream of winning the Derby, so they chose to keep Tuerta's fifth foal, a coal black son of Seattle Slew. They would name him Swale.

As a young horse, Swale was known for an inclination to take naps. One morning, it appeared that the colt was missing from his paddock. Concern ensued, and then finally a farm worker noticed the distinct sound of snoring. There, in a dip in the ground obscured from sight, the colt was found – stretched out and fast asleep. It was this incident that prompted Mrs. A. B. Hancock Jr. to select the name Swale. He would always sleep. After workouts he would go back to his stall and fall asleep.

Swale left Claiborne and entered the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens. “He trains like a good one,” Woody Stephens said about the colt in the summer of his 2-year-old year, and the legendary trainer was right. That season, Swale won the Saratoga Special, Futurity S., Breeders’ Futurity and Young America S. In his 3-year-old debut, Swale won the Hutcheson S. by eight, then held off a late challenge to win the Florida Derby.

In the Kentucky Derby, Swale’s performance was text book. He settled just off the pace, then pulled away from the field in the stretch to win by 3 1/4 lengths. Every Claiborne farm worker got a rose from the Kentucky Derby blanket.

Swale didn't win the Preakness. His jockey Laffit Pincay, Jr. said that he wasn't the same horses. However, the Belmont was different. Swale redeemed himself in the Belmont S.-G1 with a four-length primer on how to win. "When I let him go, I could feel his power," said Laffit Pincay, Jr.

Claiborne's derby and Belmont dream was now complete. No one could of possibly imagined it would turn into a nightmare eight days later.

Swale acheived Claiborne's dream of winning not only the derby but the Belmont too. The farm knew he would be a cornorstone for future generations. This son of Seattle Slew would eventually retire to that stallion barn in Paris, Kentucky and take his rightful place alongside the great ones, Secretariat, Mr. Prospector, Nijinsky, and Danzig. However, the wanted to enter him in the first running of the Breeders Cup.

Just eight days after the Belmont, Swale returned to Woody's barn after a routine gallop, one he had made literally hundreds of times before. In a matter of minutes, the dream would become a nightmare.

While getting his regular bath, his back end suddenly gave way and then he fell onto his side. Swale had died.

During the autopsy, they opened his heart and there was not even a speck of blood. To this day, they don't know the exact cause of his death. Swale was brought back home to Claiborne and was buried whole in the farm's cemetery.

Time has worn away at the granite headstone, dulling the name, but not the memory of those who have touched the horse underneath the earth. To this day, Swale remains a powerful reminder of dreams fulfilled, of hopes unattained, and of life unpredictability, of how heart can acheive your fondest dreams and how one heart beat can take it all away.

Swale was honored posthumously as 1984's Champion Three Year Old Colt.
He would be Woody Stephen's last Kentucky Derby Winner.
He would be Laffit Pincay Jrs. only Derby Winner.

Each spring at foaling season, Claiborne Farm hopes their second derby winner is just a heartbeat away.

RIP Swale
1981 -1984
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Wanderin Boy Memorial  
That's a nice article Chris...well written. RIP Swale
  Mar 8, 2010  •  6,238 views
Extremely well-written. Wonderful article, but so sad. RIP Swale
  Mar 8, 2010  •  6,271 views
fantastic!!!!!well done
  Mar 8, 2010  •  6,266 views
Sarah Wishwind  
nice! but soooo sad. i sure hope that swale and his grandfather both RIP
  Mar 8, 2010  •  6,270 views
Sad, but amazing! I hope all creatures hearts do not stop so suddenly!
  Mar 9, 2010  •  6,243 views
Cruisin Past Curfew  
R.I.P. Swale. So sad that he died at such a young age :(
  57 days ago  •  6,248 views
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