It’s not always easy to spot a winner
By Martha Crawford
It was spring of 1954 when I swept through the historic Sunset Route Railway Station on East Commerce Street in San Antonio, Texas, pausing only long enough to retrieve a dog-eared copy of Sunset magazine that had been cast aside. Rushing to board the Southern Pacific’s crack Sunset Limited, I stepped up into the Pullman car with a mink stole over one arm and my black cocker Spaniel, Sancho, draped over the other. I was headed to Hollywood, where I had lived for the better part of my life, to do stunt doubling for Eleanor Parker in MGM’s Interrupted Melody.
A long-time history buff and train devotee, I was looking forward to the train trip. This legendary train had its roots in the Sunset Limited of 1894, developed by the Southern Pacific Railroad, and is the oldest named train in continuous operation in the United States. Sunset magazine was started for its namesake on the Sunset Route, to be read onboard and distributed at railway depots along the way, with hopes it could further promote the west. It did. I couldn’t wait to look at the well-worn copy.
My compartment was easy to find and I sat by the window, Sancho on my lap, and pressed my face against the glass to watch the train pull away from the city of my birth. Before long the rails would cross the complex Sonoran Desert, with scheduled stops at El Paso and Tucson, and a crew change at Yuma before we arrived at our Southern California destination. A few flag stops along the way were a perfect break for Sancho.
I had ridden this extraordinary train many times with my polo-playing father. The Sunset Limited was well known among the top polo players as they commuted from home bases in Texas to Los Angeles. Many were into horse racing and owned steeds that raced at Santa Anita.
That evening after dinner, with Sancho comfortably snuggled into my compartment, I tacked a note on the door, “Please don’t open – dog,” and headed for the lounge car clutching my purse, the worn copy of Sunset and a new Thoroughbred horse magazine. I walked the length of the Pullman car unaware of anyone behind me, and leaned into the heavy stainless steel vacuum-operated door to the vestibule. Out of nowhere an arm slid around my right side and helped me open the heavy door. I had just long enough to check out a tanned, handsome cowboy in a western-cut suede jacket and highly polished boots. He tipped his white Stetson and said, “Read the note your dawg wrote, ma’am, real smart dawg!”
I smiled and nodded my approval, sure the handsome cowboy would soon join me in the lounge car. I walked precariously through several cars—wearing my best blue Delman pumps, purchased at I. Magnin—before arriving at my destination. Seated at a comfortable chair behind a snack table, I spread out my magazines, and within moments felt someone plop down next to me. I struggled to catch my breath, thinking it was the cowboy.
Wrong! It was a plain looking gentleman in a blue suit with a bow tie peeking out from under his starched white shirt collar. I was almost mesmerized as I watched the tie bounce up and down as he talked.
“I see you like horses,” he said, as his eyes landed squarely on the Thoroughbred horse magazine. “Yes,” I replied flatly, angry that he had taken the only available seat.
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The gentleman was trying to make conversation and told me he had a nice horse. Having spent a lifetime with horses, I can spot a horseman a long way away, and I quickly assumed he was no horseman. But I felt guilty ignoring him and finally stopped looking for the cowboy long enough to ask, “What’s his name?”
“Swaps!” he replied enthusiastically, adding that he was on his way to…” I moaned before he finished his sentence. No one, but no one, loved to swap (no pun intended) horse stories more than I did, but surely nobody who knew anything about horses would name a good horse “Swaps.” I was raised around good horses with high profile names that had character, names like War Admiral, Seabiscuit and Man o’ War.
By now, having abandoned all hope for the cowboy, I returned to my compartment. I put down my magazines and opened my suitcase to retrieve my film script. Sancho curled in my lap while I considered how I would best do the stunts in my new job at MGM.
In May of the following year, I was driving along Washington Boulevard in Culver City on my way to work at MGM when I switched on the radio and heard, “… and the winner of the 1955 Kentucky Derby is… Swaps!” I stared at the radio in total disbelief and almost ran into the car in front of me.
It was then I realized I had given the brush-off to one of the best-known trainers and most successful men in the history of horse racing—Rex Ellsworth. No regrets, but had I given Ellsworth half a chance, I might have found myself in a very different life.