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The Dancer: The Belmont Stakes
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Part Three:  The Belmont Stakes

Read more at Bits N' Bunny



The intense Triple Crown season was far from over when Native Dancer crossed the wire first in the 1953 Preakness Stakes.  With three weeks until the Belmont Stakes, tension was high between Native Dancer followers and his doubters. The talk consumed not only the racing world, but was also captured the attention of the national spotlight.  With each of The Dancer’s five national television appearances from April eighteenth to May twenty-third, arguments escalated immensely. 

After the Preakness Stakes where Native Dancer held off Jamie K. for the win, people were reluctant to acknowledge Native Dancer’s abilities.   As Arthur Daley wrote in the New York Times, “When the great ones come on with an invincible rush…they blasted away with surging power that was awesome to behold.  As yet, the Dancer hasn’t awed anyone.”   The facts were clear: Native Dancer’s combined winning margin for all his previous starts (eleven of which were the best stakes races in the country) was thirty lengths, including one race where he equaled a world record.  Hmmm.

Sports cartoonist, Willard Mullin of the New York Telegram illustrated the debate with a sketch depicting Man O’ War, Citation, and Count Fleet in the grandstand, sitting with their arms folded and sour faces.  Behind them were fellow racehorses Whirlaway, War Admiral, Gallant Fox, Omaha, Colin, and Assault shouting “Prove It!” to Native Dancer, out jogging on the racetrack.

Winfrey and Vanderbilt were never affected by the doubts.  Vanderbilt told the media, what I believe to be one of the wisest quotes ever in horseracing, “It will be an awfully long time before we know for sure.  Greatness doesn’t come in a single race, or even a series of races.  It comes in perspective.  Sometimes you have to wait until a horse is retired before you can point a finger, politely of course, and say ‘There’s a great racehorse’.”

Trainer Bill Winfrey, who always believed Native Dancer was worthy of his champion status, began to change The Dancer’s workout strategy once again-this time, to fit the Belmont Stakes.  His workouts were made up of long distances; his shortest was a six furlong gallop the day before the Belmont Stakes.  Every other work was at one mile, or longer.  The Dancer’s longest work was 1 ˝ miles, at the Belmont Stakes distance. 

The Dancer’s main rival was Jamie K. with jockey, Eddie Arcaro, who was determined to defeat the Grey Ghost.  Jamie K., second in the Preakness Stakes, had started once since the Preakness.  Against older horses in an allowance, he finished a gaining second to a five year old carrying three pounds less.  Agreeably, Eddie Arcaro believed Jamie K. was the best horse in the allowance.  However, he was convinced he was on the best horse for the Belmont.  “Native Dancer will know he has been to the races.” He said prior to the Belmont Stakes.

Winfrey became concerned when the entries for the race were announced.  The Belmont was made up of come-from-behind horses who would create a slow pace.  This would make it harder for an off-the-lead horse, like Native Dancer, to win because the horses on the lead are not burnt out from a fast pace. Uncertainty plagued Winfrey’s mind.

Overnight rains brought a dreary mood to Belmont Stakes Day.  Not wanting to weather the chilly breeze that was sweeping underneath the grandstand, many spectators chose to watch the race on their television.  Belmont Stakes longshot, Bassino, who had only entered the day before, was scratched due to the unfriendly weather.

Despite the gloomy weather, thirty-eight thousand onlookers came to watch the moment of truth for Native Dancer.  Wagering for the Belmont Stakes was limited to win and place betting, because the track officials feared the use of their minus pool.

Native Dancer reached remarkably low odds of 9-20, and Jamie K. was given his fair share of respect at odds of 5-2.  Royal Bay Gem, who was third in the Preakness, and fourth in the Derby went off at 6-1, and Ran O’ War, fourth in the Preakness reached 32-1.  Kamehameha, a Polynesian colt, was at odds of 24-1, and The Preem was at 122-1.  By post time the track was rated ‘fast’.

At 4:46 PM, nine million households turned their attention to Native Dancer loading into the fifth gate, beside Jamie K. with Eddie Arcaro aboard, attempting to keep the Grey Ghost’s name from gracing the record books.  In minutes, the Triple Crown saga would be over, and Native Dancer’s fate would be sealed.

Breaking from the gates in the Belmont Stakes, The Dancer was eager to take the lead, being the fastest from the start.  However, Eric Guerin was quick to pull him back into fourth behind Ram O’ War, Kamehameha, and Jamie K. as they passed the grandstand for the first time. 

Kamehameha was exhausted early in the race, and fell back.  His abrupt withdrawal of all contention did not affect any of the other horses negatively.  Down the backstretch, the horses remained in the same position, making a slow pace of :25 for the quarter, and :50 ˝ for the half mile.  Winfrey’s fear was being realized before his eyes.  Native Dancer would have to overcome the dreadfully sluggish pace in order to win the Belmont.

Eddie Arcaro had blamed himself for Jamie K.’s loss in the Preakness Stakes, believing he moved too late in the race.  As the horses ran around the sweeping final turn of the Belmont Stakes, Arcaro, not making the same mistake twice, sensed it was time for his horse to run, and let him loose.  Jamie K. was up for the task, racing around Ram O’ War, and taking the lead.  Arcaro would have the race play as he wanted, with Native Dancer pursuing him down the homestretch.

Shortly after Jamie K. made his bid for the lead, Guerin asked The Dancer for his best effort.  Native Dancer blew by Ram O’ War as he entered the homestretch.  Driving against the chilling rain, Native Dancer was trailing Jamie K. by less than one length.  Pushing through the clouds of fog his breath made before him, he was moving so quickly over the track surface that his silvery legs were a blur.  Jamie K. was only clinging to the lead, though he was still running solidly under brutal urging from Arcaro.  The two rival jockeys implored their mounts, but Native Dancer was shortening the margin, and by the final furlong he had the edge on Jamie K.

At the sixteenth pole, Native Dancer slightly relaxed and the crowds shrieked when Jamie K. started close in on the big grey.  Feeling the challenge, Native Dancer was recharged nearing the wire, and increased his lead to a neck, granting jockey, Eddie Arcaro his wish of “being at the races”, but without the outcome he desired.

When that massive, white head crossed the wire first, he was only two-fifths off the track record set by Count Fleet exactly ten years to the date, and had equaled Citation’s time for the Belmont Stakes.  Native Dancer proved his greatness (once again) with a final quarter of :24.4, and a final half of :49.2, an amazing feat.

In the winner’s circle, Winfrey told CBS’s Red Smith, “He doesn’t waste any effort-that lazy so-and-so.  He just does what he has to do to win, but he does it.  There was never any doubt with me that he was a champion, but he surely proved himself to the others today.”

As the connections celebrated in the Belmont Park winner’s circle, Eddie Arcaro was suffering his eighth loss to The Dancer.  He was sure that he would serve the big grey his second defeat this time out, but was denied his sixth Belmont Stakes win.  Arcaro said, “…And if we were to have gone all the way around the track again, Native Dancer still wasn’t going to let me get past him.”

At last!  Arcaro had finally given up in his battle against the Grey Ghost.

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