Native Dancer: Racing's Grey Ghost

Updated: Apr 10, 2019

Decades ago, Thoroughbred racing was as big of a sport as any. The people and animals involved were admired by the general public and treated as celebrities. One of racing’s biggest names in the 1950s was the horse Native Dancer.

Native Dancer was born on March 27, 1950 on Scott Farm in Lexington. He was by the 1945 Preakness Stakes winner Polynesian and out of a great Discovery mare named Geisha. Native Dancer stood at 16.3hh at maturity, boasting a beautiful dapple grey coat. From his sire he inherited short pasterns and odd-looking ankles. To go along with his big build, Native Dancer had a big personality. He was an extremely intelligent horse, but was strong-willed and difficult to handle. Many times he would clamp his teeth down on a jockey’s foot and heave him out of the saddle. Twice he injured stud grooms. Stud groom Joe Hall was the only one who could keep the horse calm.

Native Dancer in the Travers Stakes. Keeneland Library - Morgan Collection. This image is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced in print or electronically without written permission of the Keeneland Library.

Before Native Dancer even made his debut he was attracting attention with his fast workout times. His trainer Bill C. Winfrey even 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”.

Native Dancer made his debut at Jamaica on April 19, 1952. Going off at odds of 7/2, Native Dancer ran home to a four length victory. Four days later, he sailed home to a six length victory in the Youthful Stakes. Bucked shins put him out of the races until August when he was shipped to Saratoga to run. There he won the Flash Stakes, romped home in the slop of the Saratoga Special, carried 126 pounds to victory in the Grand Union Hotel Stakes, and then soared home to a win in the Hopeful Stakes.

In preparation for the Belmont Futurity, Native Dancer took a win in the Anticipation Purse. The Futurity proved to be the horse’s first big challenge when he was blocked early on and had to come back hard in the stretch to win by two and a half lengths over Tahitian King. The winning time of 1:14 ⅘ equaled the world record for 6.5 furlongs.

After the Belmont Futurity, Native Dancer won the Eastview Stakes to round out an extremely successful two-year old season. The year had netted him $230,945 in earnings which was a record for a juvenile at that time. It had also earned him the Horse of the Year title, making him the first two-year old to achieve such honors.

All eyes were now on Native Dancer to become a Kentucky Derby winner. He started out his three-year old season with wins in the Gotham Stakes and Wood Memorial and went off with the shortest odds in Kentucky Derby history.

However, the Kentucky Derby did not go as planned for Native Dancer. The train he was transported to Churchill Downs in had crashed, leaving him with a badly swollen ankle. In the race itself, Native Dancer was bumped at the start by Money Broker. He was then eased back and taken wide around the turn. In the stretch, Native Dancer was bumped once more. However, he had been able to save a little ground in the stretch and was able to barrel down towards Dark Star, but did not have enough time to put his nose on the wire first.

Native Dancer’s loss in the Kentucky Derby would be the only loss of his career. The stunning and disappointing finish was attributed by the media to a bad ride by Eric Guiren. Native Dancer’s owners, the Vanderbilts, stuck with Guiren despite this blame and kept him on the horse for all but one of his remaining races.

Native Dancer re-boosted his confidence with a win in the Withers Stakes just a week before he took the Preakness Stakes by a neck over Jamie K. He repeated that victory by putting his neck out first in the Belmont Stakes. Because of these two victories, many racing fans believed that Native Dancer would have been a Triple Crown winner had he not had such a terrible trip in the Kentucky Derby.

In his next start, Native Dancer won the Dwyer Stakes carrying twelve more pounds than second place finisher Guardian II. Before Dancer’s start in the American Derby, Eric Guiren was suspended leaving Eddie Arcaro to sit in the irons. Fans were outraged at the decision to put Arcaro in the irons as he had once said that Native Dancer was not as good as Citation. Even with the outrage, Arcaro was kept in the irons.

Arcaro was ordered not to use the whip on Native Dancer in the race as the horse preferred to run when he wanted to. Almost as if to get back at Arcaro, Native Dancer refused to run until mid-stretch when he opened up a kick powerful enough to propel him to a two length win. Arcaro had ate his words and admitted, “He’s everything they’ve said about him. Sheer power is the only way to describe him”.

Native Dancer’s next start would be in the Travers Stakes, this time with regular jockey Eric Guiren perched upon the grey horse’s back. Before the race, Native Dancer was mobbed by a group of fans who pulled hairs from his mane and tail for souvenirs. The craze for Native Dancer was similar to that of The Beatles. Everyone, everywhere wanted to get a glimpse of the horse. Native Dancer recovered from the incident to rally home to a five and a half length win.

His next start came in the Arlington Classic. Native Dancer easily took the race by nine lengths, but had to be laid off for the rest of the season due to developing a sole bruise. He was named Champion Three Year Old but lost Horse of the Year titles to Tom Fool.

Native Dancer started out his four-year old season with a win in the Commando Purse at Belmont. In his next start, the Metropolitan Mile, he rallied to a win with 130 pounds on his back. He was then aimed for a start in the Suburban Handicap, but came back from a workout with a sore foreleg. This injury kept him out of the races until he romped home to a nine length victory in the Oneonta Handicap at Saratoga.

Native Dancer came back from the Oneonta Handicap with an injury, prompting his connections to send him into retirement. Despite only having a few races that year, he was voted Horse of the Year. His career of 21 wins in 22 starts had earned him quite the recognition. He was one of the top attractions on television and he was even put on the cover of Time Magazine’s May 1954 issue.

At stud at Sagamore Farm in Maryland, Native Dancer proved himself to be one of the most influential Thoroughbreds of all time. His greatest sons include Raise A Native, Dancer’s Image, and Kaui King. He even produced Shenanigans, the dam of Ruffian, and Natalama, the dam of Northern Dancer. His name appears in the names of horses like Affirmed, Alydar, Genuine Risk, and Mr. Prospector. It is undeniable that Native Dancer had a huge influence on some of the world’s greatest Thoroughbreds.

In November of 1967, Native Dancer refused a carrot from his groom Joe Hall. Hall immediately knew something was wrong and the horse was met by a vet who diagnosed him with a tumor. He was driven to Pennsylvania that night for surgery. Joe Hall sat next to Native Dancer as he woke up from surgery, but the shock from the surgery made his heart give out. The “Grey Ghost” was at rest.

He was taken back to Sagamore and buried. Hearts of his connections and fans ache and many still ache to this day. But, if one wishes to see the horse again, they must simply look to one of his descendants. Within them is where Native Dancer lives on, asking them to win for him again.



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