The owner-trainer combination of Rex Ellsworth and Mesh Tenney basked in the California sunshine throughout the 1950s. Those two dapper horsemen did as much winning in their own backyard as any of their Golden State brethren.
When they joined efforts to race a thoroughbred named Swaps, their fame grew a little bit longer and larger. Swaps won the Kentucky Derby, giving California racing a validation it hadn’t always received.
But the bronze visage of Swaps defeating Nashua in a mid-50s Kentucky Derby wasn’t the only time a frisky champion from the Ellsworth-Tenney combination did something of California importance.
There was also a stakes-winning bay colt by the name of Olden Times that did some fancy running for the Ellsworth-Tenney team.
Olden Times was foaled in 1958 . . . or just after heyday of Swaps. He was a robust bundle of energy and had more than a dash of the competitive spirit displayed by his great grandfather, the indomitable Man o’ War.
His sire was Relic, a viable runner who won stakes races and later became a well-known broodmare sire in France. Olden Times’ dam was the French lady, Djenne. Djenne’s sire had won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and was France’s leading sire in five different years.
When Olden Times came to the races as a two-year-old his earlier training and his background of relatives before him made both Ellsworth and Tenny believe he could possibly give them some stakes success.
At two, he did win both the Charles Howard Stakes and the Haggin Stakes, a pair of California-based races. He placed second in the California Breeders’ Trial Stakes.
When the winter of 1960 followed on the heels of Olden Times’ two-year-old campaign, Ellsworth and Tenney made no special plans for a move to the Triple Crown trail. They kept Olden Times to their California base.
Under the Chamber of Commerce-sponsored sunshine in California, Olden Times had three stakes wins as a three-year-old — the California Breeders’ Champion Stakes, the Debonair Stakes, and the Malibu Stakes. His runner-up finishes in popular races included the San Felipe Stakes, the Will Rogers Stakes, and the San Vicente Stakes.
Through two years of California racing, the bay had remained in good health and there was no real mention of his being retired to stud. Instead, he was prepared for going back to the tracks in his home state for another season.
At four, he had victories in the San Juan Capistrano Handicap, the San Antonio Handicap, and the Golden State Breeders’ Handicap. He also was second in the prominent Santa Anita Handicap, the San Fernando Stakes, and the Palos Verdes Handicap.
Swaps was still the Pegasus of Ellsworth’s years of ownership, but he was letting Olden Times nudge his way into his reservoir of feelings.
In three seasons of consistent efforts and health, Olden Times had proved to be extremely versatile. He had important wins on both dirt and grass courses. Even though he had been campaigned in California, there were plans afoot to try him elsewhere in the country.
Those plans would be executed mostly because he could run well and be competitive at various distances. He had won at the short sprinter’s distance of five furlongs. And he regularly handled a mile or nine furlongs without any faltering.
Before he was finally retired after racing in 1964 as a six-year-old, he even was tried at the outer limits of any thoroughbred’s endurance, a mile and three-quarters.
After three years and over 35 races, Olden Times had less succcess at age five than he and his handlers had previously enjoyed. At five, he did win the San Pasqual Handicap but his other two times on the board found him finishing second in the San Carlos Handicap and then third in the Palos Verdes Handicap.
Despite only the one win at age five, Ellsworth and Tenney decided to try Olden Times farther east in Illinois, Kentucky, and New York.
After another win in the San Pasqual Handicap that showed much of the old zest and spark, Olden Times went to Arlington Park where he vindicated the trust shown in him by posting a win in the Illinois Handicap.
In Kentucky at Louisville, he took the Churchill Downs Handicap.
Another Olden Times’ victory came in the Metropolitan Mile.
He would climax his wholesome career with a rousing win in that Metropolitan Mile at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, New York. In that race, Belmont Stakes winner Quadrangle was a beaten rival.
When his complete race-record was filed it showed that Olden Times had run 54 times and had 17 wins. He was second another 10 times and five third-place verdicts.
Racing from 1960 through 1964, he earned $603,875.
Because of early success at five furlongs, many in the racing industry simply regarded him as a sprinter. But that win at one mile and three-quarters in the 1962 San Juan Capistrano Handicap at Santa Anita made those who wanted to pigeon-hole him rethink their appraisal.
Trainer Tenney remembered that effort as Olden Times’ best.
“The strategy was to take him to the lead as usual. No one in the race would take him seriously because they thought him to be a sprinter that on a good day could last only nine furlongs.
“Every time a horse would make a run at him, Olden Times would slightly increase his lead. In the final quarter all the horses were tired because they had all made a run at him.
“He, too, was tired but was the first tired horse to cross the finish line. If the other horses would have waited patiently for the final furlongs of the race as is usual in long races, they would have overtaken Olden Times.”
Bill Shoemaker, the Hall of Fame jockey, said that winning on Olden Times at that distance was the greatest ride of his career. Shoemaker rode for over 40 years. And he guided a number of thoroughbreds that were voted Horse of the Year.
Ellsworth and Tenney were never asked on the record to compare Swaps and Olden Times. They would have taken Swaps . . . but the always-healthy bay would have drawn enough praise to be a close second . . . beaten only by a neck.