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The Dancer: 1953 Preakness Stakes
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This series spotlights Native Dancer's life as a horse, and as a professional athlete.

Part Two:  1953 Preakness Stakes
 
 

After Native Dancer came off a heartbreaking loss in the Kentucky Derby, trainer Bill Winfrey and owner, Alfred Vanderbilt Jr. focused their energy on the Preakness.
Contrary to the hero’s welcome Native Dancer received heading to the Kentucky Derby, he got the cold shoulder from the press and fans as he boarded his train car heading to Belmont Park, New York for the Withers Stakes. Disappointed media and fans abandoned support of their “national hero” due to his loss in the Derby. Arriving to a “ghost-town” like atmosphere, consisting of a few photographers who showed up only to record the event.
Most horses went on to Pimlico for the Preakness as their next start. Trainer Winfrey decided to run him in the Withers Stakes, feeling uncomfortable about waiting three weeks until The Dancer’s next start. The Withers fell one week after the Derby, and two prior to the Preakness Stakes.
Bill Winfrey saw the ambivalence of the media and fans as a positive. He took this opportunity to sharpen Native Dancer for the Preakness without the stress of all the attention.
The Withers had been run at one mile since 1874, with past winners including Count Fleet and Man O‘ War. Native Dancer faced two other young colts: Invigorator, coming off a third place in the Kentucky Derby; and longshot Real Brother. Social Outcast, a stablemate of both Invigorator, and The Dancer; was scratched due to rain that made the track conditions sloppy.
Despite Chuck Comors’ words written in the Morning Telegraph, that the field was reduced “to the quality of a soggy pretzel at a brew master’s picnic.” thirty-eight thousand people crammed into the Belmont grandstand and paddock. Being the only racehorse to be touted as “The horse in the living room”, Native Dancer was being viewed by millions on national television for the fourth time in only twenty-eight days.
Betting was limited to win wagers for the Withers, obviously due to the incredibly small field, and all but $27,168 of $154,909 was put on The Dancer, lowering his odds to 1-20, which is the legal minimum. William Boniface of the Baltimore Sun remembered, “That 1-20 wasn’t just coming from all the women who said, ‘Ooh, look at the pretty grey,’ Died-in-the-wool horsemen were betting on him too. And 1-20 said people really had dismissed the loss to racing luck.”
When the jockeys came out to the paddock, Eric Guerin received boos from the New York railbirds, undoubtedly fuming about his ride in the Kentucky Derby. Known for his professionalism, Guerin did not respond to their negative gestures. Winfrey and Vanderbilt did not question The Dancer’s rider, as many had after the Derby. Giving Guerin a leg up onto the big grey, Winfrey gave the jockey no advice. He was aware that The Dancer and Guerin were the perfect horse-jockey match.
A frisky Native Dancer loaded into the gates, and all broke cleanly except for the crowd favorite. The Dancer tried to rush out of the gates, which resulted in a stumble. Immediately, Real Brother ran to the rail to make the pace ahead of the two Bill Winfrey trainees. The Kentucky Derby third placer, Invigorator, settled in behind the leader and Native Dancer rounded the end of the field. Down the backstretch, Real Brother’s lead increased to two lengths, and Guerin placed Native Dancer just to the outside of Invigorator, restraining his mount until he knew it was time.
When Invigorator’s jockey asked his colt to run at Real Brother, Eric let The Dancer loose, and Real Brother’s moment leading Native Dancer was about to become a distant memory. Around the turn, all three were neck and neck, but by the final eighth, The Dancer had pulled away from the two challengers. Native Dancer was never pushed hard by his jockey, who only waved his whip before the big grey at the sixteenth pole. From there, he dramatically pulled away for the win by four lengths, in front of a huge crowd erupting with cheers.
Evan Shipman, another writer from the Morning Telegraph, praised The Dancer by saying, “What a pleasure it is to watch a really good Thoroughbred! So sure is The Dancer’s attack, so deadly is the execution. The decision, when it comes, is the matter of a few strides at the most.”
After the race, Vanderbilt announced The Dancer would work lightly at Belmont the following Monday, then ship to Pimlico on the next day-only four days before the Preakness.
After settling into his stall at Pimlico on Tuesday, Native Dancer was easily galloped around the dirt oval twice in order to stretch his muscles for the big race just days away. Overnight rain made for a muddy surface, but The Dancer still managed to impress. Royal Bay Gem’s trainer, Clyde Troutt saw the big grey on the track, and exclaimed, “Look at that big horse! There oughta be a law making a horse like that give weight to my little one.” He shook his head. “It was a shame for a horse like that to be beaten…But he looks fitter now than at the Derby. He appeared a little drawn in Louisville.”
On Thursday, Native Dancer, and Jamie K., another Preakness contender; worked on the racetrack. The Dancer continued to impose the field by working an amazing 1:11 3/5 for a loping six furlongs.


 Sunny weather brought thirty thousand spectators to the Preakness Stakes on Saturday. Oddly, eight thousand additional spectators showed up at the Withers to see The Dancer face two other horses on a muddy track under a cloudy sky. Despite the low attendance, betting records were smashed.
Long lines weaved under the grandstand, as the fans’ favorites dominated the early races. $2.28 million was gambled on Preakness day, shattering the earlier record. Even to this day, there is yet to be a large enough amount of money placed on horses to break this record at Pimlico. The earlier mark of $200,000 bet on the Preakness alone was broke by half of one million dollars. Seventy-eight percent of that was used to purchase winning tickets on Native Dancer. He also garnered over half of the win bets, and approximately two thirds of the show bets. So much money was put on The Dancer that the tote board had no room to show the betting totals.
By post time, Native Dancer went off at 1-9, and Dark Star obviously got plenty of respect by being at 2-1 when he stepped into the gates.


 The track was very deep from overnight rain, but it was listed as “fast” before post time. At five forty-six, post time for the Preakness, the horses loaded into the gates. Royal Bay Gem was the first to load without any hesitation, next was Jamie K., now ridden by Eddie Arcaro (kicked off Correspondent because the trainer believed he was too focused on Native Dancer during the Derby), Dark Star was third, fourth was Native Dancer, then Ram O’ War, Correspondent, and last was Tahitian King.
All had a clean start, and, as expected, Dark Star took the lead with Tahitian King second, Correspondent fourth, and Royal Bay Gem sixteen lengths off the pace. Guerin had placed The Dancer closer to pace in third behind the leading Dark Star, who ran a quarter mile in :22 4/5. Knowing Native Dancer was about to make his move around the far turn, jockey Jack Headley-Woodhouse reacted quickly when Tahitian King drifted wide, attempting to shut the hole on the rail, knowing Guerin would react tactfully, urging Native Dancer on the rail. Headley-Woodhouse was too late, and he knew it was to be a fight for second.
Running into the homestretch, the spectators were on their toes, screaming for The Dancer to catch Dark Star who was maintaining the lead powerfully as he had done in the Derby. With bounding, twenty-nine foot strides, Native Dancer was gaining with every step he took, but was there enough left in Dark Star’s tank to hold off Native Dancer’s assault? The crowd gasped as Dark Star went from full to empty with one stride, dramatically fading back into the field.
The Dancer was the type of horse who ran his hardest when fighting off another for the win. Now without a competitor, he immediately slowed, and put his ears up to enjoy the final furlongs of a Preakness victory.
Alarmed to have the lead earlier than anticipated, Guerin went to the whip vigorously when he saw Eddie Arcaro coming with Jamie K., going for his fifth Preakness victory. As rivals on the racetrack, Arcaro always seemed to get an edge over the much younger Guerin, but not this time, not with The Dancer. Jockeys shouting at their mounts, the horses were neck and neck by mid-stretch, and it seemed that Arcaro and his longshot mount would serve Native Dancer his second straight loss. At the wire, Native Dancer prevailed by a head, with his final eighth of a mile at a remarkable :12 4/5.


 Coming back before the grandstand in victory, Murray snapped the shank on Native Dancer’s bridle, and Harold Walker paraded the grey colt into the winner’s circle where the horse was awarded a blanket of Black-Eyed Susans. A joyous Vanderbilt rushed into the winner’s circle, excitedly shouting to the reporters, “He cut it a little close there, didn’t he?”
Aside from the shouting, and hordes of people in the winner’s circle, Native Dancer stood calmly amongst the fans and police. A relieved Guerin displayed a broad smile on his face as he dismounted.
After the Woodlawn Vase was presented to Vanderbilt, Red Smith of CBS interviewed the winning jockey. “When did you hear Jamie K. coming?” asked the reporter.
“I heard him coming soon enough.” answered Guerin only after greeting his young son, Ronnie, who was watching the race from home. The fan-favorite rider had made it custom to do so before any post-race interview aired on television.
Smith inquired. “Were you worried?”
“I wasn’t.” Eric answered. “We went to the front a little sooner than I wanted. Dark Star stopped, and I found myself on the lead. But he was holding Jamie K. safe at the end. He responded when I asked.”
When the winner’s circle celebration was over, and the cameras were off, Eric Guerin proceeded to the jockeys’ room, where Eddie Arcaro, who had heard the CBS interview, waited for Guerin at the doorway. Leering, he clamored flamboyantly enough for reporters to hear, “Don’t try to tell me I didn’t have you worried!”
“Yes, you had me plenty worried.” Eric answered unflappably. “But my horse didn’t run his best race. He was doing his best, but I had to get into him with the whip. It was only the second time I’ve had to do that.”
Coming off the win healthy, The Dancer was loaded back on the train heading to Belmont Park just one day after the race. Having such an impressive Kentucky Derby run, and Preakness win, the fans were still skeptical of Native Dancer’s ability to go the distance in the Belmont Stakes. There is no doubt that the Grey Ghost was going to have to convince the masses of his legendary talent.  
 

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