Alfred G. Vanderbilt was once asked if he had a formula for breeding a top racehorse. His reply was "Just breed any sire to a Discovery mare." The comment was not meant to be taken seriously, but it was based on the fact that his stallion Discovery was one of the most successful broodmare sires in history, with his two most notable daughters being Miss Disco, the dam of 1957 Horse of the Year Bold Ruler, and Geisha, who produced Vanderbilt's brilliantly fast and temperamental champion Native Dancer, a son of 1945 Preakness Stakes winner Polynesian.
Native Dancer was foaled on March 27, 1950, at Dan W. Scott's Scott Farm outside of Lexington. He was raised in Maryland, at Vanderbilt's Sagamore Farm, and the big gray began training for his racing career in California during the winter and early spring of 1952. His impressive performance in workouts attracted attention long before he made his first start. Trainer Bill Winfrey told reporters:
"The gray is the fastest horse I've ever trained. He shows good times in workouts, but that's not what's impressive. It's the fact that the big gray does it without any effort. He actually seems to be holding himself back."
That spring, Native Dancer broke his maiden in his first start, romping to a four and a half length victory at Jamaica on April 19, 1952. The 7 to 5 favorite in his maiden race, Native Dancer had gone off at what would prove to be the longest odds of his career.
The next time out, only four days later, Native Dancer took the Youthful Stakes by six lengths. He was then sidelined while he recovered from bucked shins.
At Saratoga, Native Dancer won the Flash Stakes by two and a quarter lengths, the Saratoga Special by three and a half lengths in the slop, the Grand Union Hotel Stakes by the same margin under 126 pounds, and the Hopeful Stakes by two lengths.
After romping in the Anticipation Purse, the big gray was finally offered a challenge in the Futurity at Belmont Park. Blocked early, the Dancer came back in a powerful stretch drive, catching Tahitian King to win by two and a half lengths in the world record time of 1:14 2/5 for the six and a half furlongs.
Native Dancer finished the season with a win in the East View Stakes, bringing his earnings to $230,495 that season, a record for a juvenile. He was undefeated with a total of nine wins, seven of them in major stakes races. Native Dancer got more attention than any two-year-old since Count Fleet, and became the first two-year-old to be honored as racing's Horse of the Year. He was top weight at 130 pounds in the Experimental Free Handicap, the highest assignment since 1942.
The following season, the Gray Ghost, as his fans called him, was the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby, winning the Gotham Mile and the Wood Memorial in New York. He went off at the shortest odds in Derby history, and when he was nosed out by longshot Dark Star, racing fans were stunned. He had been bumped badly in the start, and then again in the stretch, but it was his rider, Eric Guerin, who was blamed for the unexpected loss. The jockey was criticized for several decisions he made in response to traffic problems during the race, and it was said that "Eric took Native Dancer everywhere on the track except the ladies' room."
Native Dancer quickly redeemed himself with a four length victory in the Withers Stakes. The following week he took the Preakness, beating Jamie K. by a neck. Next came a narrow win in the Belmont Stakes, with Jamie K. again a neck back. Native Dancer's time for the mile and a half was 2:28 3/5. Only Citation and Count Fleet had gone faster. Following the classics, Native Dancer won the Dwyer Stakes by a length and three quarters, giving twelve pounds to runner-up Guardian II.
The T.V. Guide ranked him second to Ed Sullivan as the biggest attraction on television. When Eddie Arcaro said that Native Dancer wasn't a "...great horse like Citation..." his angry fans booed Arcaro at the racetrack and wrote letters in defense of their big gray hero. Then, when Eric Guerin was suspended, A.G. Vanderbilt hired Eddie Arcaro to ride Native Dancer in the American Derby at Washington Park. Fans of the Gray Ghost were outraged, writing dozens of letters to Vanderbilt demanding that someone besides the "Non-Believer" be commissioned to ride him in the Derby. The day before the race, Arcaro commented that if he were to get beat, he'd be "...the biggest bum alive." He was ordered not to go to the whip until the stretch, and preferably not at all, since the temperamental horse was better left to do things his own way.
In the American Derby, Native Dancer proved his sense of humor, refusing run until the middle of the homestretch, trailing the leaders by six lengths and scaring Eddie Arcaro to death before he took off to win by two lengths.
Said Eddie Arcaro:
"He's everything they've said about him. Sheer power is the only way to describe him."
Before the Travers Stakes, a group of fans got past the guards and pulled hairs from his mane and tail as souvenirs. It was the first time a horse was almost trampled to death by humans, but Native Dancer recovered from the incident, easily winning the Travers by five and a half lengths.
The Arlington Classic, a nine length triumph, turned out to be the last race in Native Dancer's three-year-old career, for in winning the race, he developed a sole bruise and was laid off for the rest of the year. Tom Fool was voted the 1953 Horse of the Year after becoming the second winner of the Handicap Triple Crown, the first being Whisk Broom II in 1913, and The Gray Ghost had to settle for the title of Champion Three Year Old Colt.
Native Dancer traveled with a cat, named simply "Black Cat", who in the past had only produced black kittens. When she gave birth to her next litter in Native Dancer's stall, every one of them was gray. Telling the story, his groom, Les Murray, concluded simply that "He's a powerful horse."
In 1954, the Gray Ghost was back again, and in his season debut he won the Commando Purse at Belmont. In the Metropolitan Mile, The Grey Ghost carried 130 pounds and rallied from seven lengths back to catch Straight Face, who carried a mere 117, and win by a neck. Jamie K., under 110 pounds, finished third.
Native Dancer was training for the Suburban when he developed a sore right foreleg, and was therefore out of action for three months. Then the great horse was injured on a sloppy track while winning Saratoga's Oneonta Handicap by nine lengths despite a burden of 137 pounds, and was retired.
His only career loss had been his second place finish to Dark Star in the 1953 Kentucky Derby, and when he was voted Horse of the Year, he became the first horse to win the title twice in non-consecutive years, the only other being John Henry in 1981 and 1984.
Many of the people who worked with the gray commented that if he hadn't been handled carefully he could have been dangerous. He was known to pull exercise riders off his back with his teeth, and only cooperated with human beings when it suited his current mood. His stud groom, Joe Hall, patiently waited for Native Dancer to come to him every night when he went to bring the horse in for his evening grain. Once he was ready to come in for the night, he followed the groom quietly into the barn. But had someone walked into the paddock before he was ready, he was very likely to toss them across the field. Yet despite his temper, Native Dancer loved the kittens which lived in his stall, often playing with them for hours, and the humans he tolerated were very fond of him.
Many people considered Native Dancer to be the greatest horse in American racing history, rivaling even the superiority of the legendary Man o' War, later pointing out that even Secretariat didn't match the enormous length of Man o' War's stride, but Native Dancer had equaled the twenty-eight foot span. Said Joe Hall:
"He may have been the greatest horse of all time. He'd have given any horse in history a race and probably have beaten them all -Man o' War, Secretariat, and the rest- just as long as no one actually told him to do it, just as long as they'd let him do it his way."
At stud, Native Dancer founded an entire line. The names of his offspring are almost legendary, including Raise a Native, Kauai King, Dancer's Image, and the English Classic winner Hula Dancer. His daughters included Natalma, the dam of Northern Dancer, and Shenanigans, who produced the champions Ruffian and Icecapade. Native Dancer's son Raise a Native was an outstanding sire himself, siring Exclusive Native (the sire of Affirmed and Genuine Risk), Alydar (a Hall of Fame member, Leading Sire of 1990, and sire of Horses of the Year Alysheba and Criminal Type), Majestic Prince (the 1969 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner), and Mr. Prospector (the sire of the champions Conquistador Cielo, Eillo, Gulch, Seeking the Gold, Tank's Prospect, Fappiano, Afleet, Rhythm, Forty Niner, etc.) Native Dancer's son Native Charger sired the champion Forward Gal as well as 1970 Belmont Stakes winner High Echelon and the good filly Summer Guest.
In November of 1967, Native Dancer refused a carrot for the first time in his life. Instantly, Joe Hall knew something was wrong. Within forty-eight hours, a vet had diagnosed a tumor, and Native Dancer was driven to Pennsylvania that night for surgery. Joe Hall sat beside him until he regained consciousness. The great horse sat up at five that morning, and the post operative shock caused his heart to give out. Heartbroken himself, Joe Hall took the horse back to Sagamore, where he was buried beside Discovery. Native Dancer was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1963.
According to legend, his ghost haunts Churchill Downs. Regardless of the truth to that fanciful story, his spirit does linger over the twin spires. Since his son Kauai King won the race in 1966, fifteen other Derby winners have carried his blood, including Dancer's Image (disqualified in 1968), Majestic Prince (1969), Affirmed (1978), Genuine Risk (1980), Ferdinand (1986), Alysheba (1987), Unbridled (1990), Strike the Gold (1991), Thunder Gulch (1995), Grindstone (1996), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), and Fusiachi Pegasus (2000).
|Blue Grass||Prince Palatine|
|Hour Glass II|
|Miyako||John P. Grier||Whisk Broom II|
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