When he was tearing up the pea patch in the early 1950s, his hard-charging thoroughbred image was captured on the cover of Time Magazine and his notoriety became such that T.V. Guide ranked him second only to Ed Sullivan as a most-watched attraction on the 12-inch, black and white sets of that era.
This was Native Dancer. Tagged with the nickname of “The Gray Ghost”, the tall stretch runner had a nasty streak that was as wide and weighty as he was large in body.
Though he could never be placed in a box marked “fragile”, Native Dancer was injured at age two . . . again at age three . . . and again at age four. His last leg injury caused him to be retired after only 22 lifetime starts.
When he was recalled as a racing phenom, the versions of his on-track success and his refusal to bend to human will were as different as a Shetland pony is from a Belgian draft horse.
When sent to the track to exercise between starts, Native Dancer was known to turn his head and latch onto the arm of a surprised rider and yank that unfortunate from the saddle. He could bite with the power of a lion, and he could drag a grown man or women to the ground as quickly as a three-furlong race is completed.
His groom, Joe Hall, had stories he would tell of the times when the big gray had showed him who the real boss of the stable was. Most of Hall’s stories concerned the heated temper that “The Dancer” would show miscreants that sought an even share of his space or asked him to be a little more partient.
Trainer Bill Winfrey and his first rider, Eric Guerin, were of the same opinion when speaking of Native Dancer’s place in the pantheon of racing’s near-immortals.
“He may have been the greatest horse of all time. He’d have given any horse in history a race and probably would have beaten them all — Man o’ War, Secretariat, and the rest — just as long as they’d let him do it his way.”
Even though he was foaled at Scott Farm just outside Lexington, he was quickly moved to Alfred G. Vanderbilt’s Sagamore Farm in Maryland. His basic training for the races took place in California and by the spring of 1952, he had already ripened a reputation that was based on his speed.
Trainer Winfrey lured reporters to his favored shaded spots with words that needed to be proven. The wily trainer told of a never-raced comet. “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.”
In his first race, siren songs and embellished stories followed him to the starting gate. Grooms and stable workers kept their “betting money” safe, not even risking a couple bob on their own animals.
So when Native Dancer made his debut his odds were a miniscule 7-to-5. And those were the best odds a player would ever get on his nose in any and all of his 22 lifetime starts.
Of course, he won. Four days later, the Youthful Stakes was his. But after only two efforts, he was shelved for a time with bucked shins.
Back at it, Native Dancer received some real competition in the Futurity at Belmont Park. Traffic prblems threatened him with a first loss, but he ran down Tahitian King in the stretch and prevailed by over two lengths by setting a world record for six and a half furlongs.
He was unbeaten in nine tries as a two-year-old. And he became the first thoroughbred in history to be named the Horse of the Year.
At age three in 1953, the “Gray Ghost” opened with wins in the Gotham Mile and the Wood Memorial.
In the Kentucky Derby, he left the gate with the shortest odds in the race’s history. Breaking from the inside in an 11-horse field he was jostled and whacked just after the start. Again in the stretch, he was bumped. The front-running Dark Star, at odds of 25-1, almost was caught but the finish line came soon enough to give him a head win.
It was jockey Guerin that caught all the brickbats right between the eyes. “Eric took Native Dancer everywhere on the track except the ladies’ room”, was the kindest remark aimed at the rider.
There were wins in the Preakness and Belmont. In all, he raced 10 times at age three and had only the Kentucky Derby as a slight mark against his name.
But in winning the Arlington Classic he bruised a sole and didn’t race again that year. Tom Fool was selected as the Horse of the Year with “The Gray Ghost of Sagamore” getting three-year-old laurels from the same committee.
At age four there were three early-season tests and Native Dancer passed them all. Again, he was injured, a right foreleg this time, and was away from the competition for three months. Brought back on a sloppy surface in the Oneonta Handicap at Saratoga, he won but was injured once again. He was retired by Vanderbilt.
Later in life as a highly successful stud, he became a milky white fashion plate with a long sweeping tale and movie star looks.
Well-knowns from the circle of racing folks had felt the power of Native Dancer’s teeth when he bit them. Others just as famous had barely missed his well-aimed bite.
But he was 21 of 22 against the best of his era.
And his pricked-ear image was right there on Time Magazine and on Saturdays in the summer for three years he was in those living rooms and on those small television screens in millions of homes.