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Happy Birthday, Native Dancer!
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Tags: thoroughbred horseracing native dancer

 

Native Dancer played a fundamental part in the improvement of the Thoroughbred breed, and is also responsible for bringing many fans into horseracing, including myself.  Since I began researching this sport, Native Dancer was the first racehorse that sparked a great fire within me to learn more.  Though I have learned about so many incredible horses, Native Dancer holds a special place in my heart.  Not only is he the great-great grandsire of my beloved Polka, but also his accomplishments are among the most impressive.  Today marks sixty-one years since the birth of this racing icon, and I felt strongly about devoting an article to the Grey Ghost of Sagamore Farm.  The story I would like to share on this special day is unquestionably one of the greatest moments in all of horseracing…

The sun was setting in New York on a warm September evening in 1952.  Belmont Park’s grandstand had the capacity of 17,500, but on that Saturday, it flooded with over 40,000 spectators, waiting to get a look at The Dancer.  The jam-packed grandstand cast a shadow over the lengthy racecourse, notorious for being the largest in America. 

Thousands more tuned in on their black and white televisions to see this national star. They all wanted to see the sixth race on the card: the Futurity Stakes, for two year olds going 6 ½ furlongs on the Widener Straight that cut across the main track.  On an oval track, it is very clear to the riders where the ½ mile mark is, but on the Widener Straight it was much more difficult to determine, adding additional challenges for some jockeys, causing them to move their horses prematurely.

In the paddock area, masses of people rubbed elbows with one another, yelling out praise to the horse they had come to see.  Lines at betting windows weaved through the colossal crowd, knocking down Native Dancer’s odds to 7-20.  It did not stop people from purchasing these “keepsake” tickets that would only pay a meager thirty-five cents for each one dollar bet. 

Even fans watching The Dancer on their fuzzy televisions could spot him in a crowd with his bold white face and striking grey coat. His undefeated long legs made for an incomparable stride.   

Native Dancer, sandwiched between his grooms Harold Walker, and Les Murray, walked through the paddock. His owner, Alfred Vanderbilt, Jr.; trainer Bill Winfrey, and Eric Guerin, his jockey, watched the leading juvenile move past the crowds.  The additional horses in the field were scarcely given any acknowledgement, for they would act only as the background, like the trees or the grandstand.  These young colts were the strongest in the nation, but plenty had already fallen in defeat to The Dancer.  There was Tiger Skin, who was sired by champion sprinter Polynesian (also the sire of Native Dancer), and he went unvanquished until the Hopeful Stakes, where he endeavored to test The Dancer.  Little Request never challenged Native Dancer, for he was a Californian invader who was anticipated to make the pace.  Dark Star was an auspicious colt from the Cain Hoy Stable.  Tahitian King, another Polynesian two-year-old, was crushed by the big grey three times.

 After giving Guerin a leg up onto The Dancer, Winfrey contributed his only words of guidance, “Ride him with confidence.”

As horses loaded into their gates, the crowd buzzed excitedly, sending a roar into the air at the ring of the starting bell.  The crowd strained to listen to Fred Caposella’s call, anticipating any mention of The Dancer.  Little Request tore down the track, making a rushed pace of: 46 2/5 for the half, with the big grey colt settling in five lengths behind.

With ears pinned back and his enormous stride extending, Guerin loosened the reins to let The Dancer run for the lead.  At that precise moment, Eddie Arcaro on Tahitian King shot to the lead through a hole on the rail.  His mount was so powerful that the crowd screamed in surprise. 

Little Request was losing steam in front of The Dancer, and also being trapped with horses on both sides, Guerin was well aware of the difficult position, and that he would have to respond promptly.  But fortunately, Guerin had the coolest head on the racing circuit.  Little Request began to drift to the right, giving The Dancer the opportunity to stretch those legs.

Guerin yelled to the colt to “move on”.  This was the moment the race entered another dimension.  Tahitian King looked as though he was comfortably pulling ahead for the win, and two-time Triple Crown winning jockey, Arcaro, had the race in hand. Without Guerin even tapping Native Dancer’s shoulder, his mount went from a reserved fourth position to first in just five astounding strides. Tahitian King and his legendary rider just became background.  The Dancer crossed the finish line 2 ½ lengths ahead of Tahitian King who finished nine lengths ahead of the rest.  Later, spectators said The Dancer’s stride was so commanding they could see the bottom of his hooves midstride.  

It was a true “shock and awe” moment for the crowds as they cheered The Dancer as he was led into the winner’s circle for the seventh time.  Energizing the crowd even more was when they saw the winning time: 1:14 2/5-equalling the world record set fifteen years earlier by Porter’s Mile, who was carrying three pounds less.  Guerin was emotional after the landslide triumph, “I’m sure he would have broken the record if we hadn’t been fighting the headwind the whole way.” He told the reporters. “I don’t believe I have ever ridden a better horse.”

Arcaro, shaking his head, was swarmed by reporters afterward, “I thought I had it won until that grey horse just smothered us.”

~~~~~~~

On my blog, I will be starting a series on Native Dancer.  Some stories will be about his life as a horse, while others will be about his professional career as an athlete. I think it is very important to educate the new generation of horseracing enthusiasts on Native Dancer, because he was such an influential horse both on the track and as a stud.

You can read my blog, Bits N' Bunny, at:  http://bitsnbunny.blogspot.com/


 

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