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The Dancer: The Kentucky Derby
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hjyu TThis series spotlights Native Dancer's life as a horse, and as a professional athlete.

Read more from Bits N' Bunny at:

Part One:  The Kentucky Derby


Around four in the morning, a train, on its way to Louisville, Kentucky, was going through Columbus Ohio.  The train’s travelers included a dog, four horses, their trainer Bill Winfrey; and two grooms, Les Murray, and Howard Walker.  One of those four horses was a national hero on his way to become a champion, and that horse was Native Dancer.

The Dancer was getting more rest than his trainer, Winfrey, who had been tossing and turning for three hours before giving up, and reading a book.  His mind kept traveling to The Dancer, worrying about his safety.  Continuing to remind himself that the star of his barn was safe, being accompanied by his two grooms, also that the colt’s shipping stall was padded with hay, and he was wearing his regular shipping gear which included a helmet that would protect him from mild to moderate blows.  Winfrey had always hoped that Native Dancer would travel in the private train Alfred Vanderbilt, his owner, had specially designed for shipping his horses, but Mr. Vanderbilt always chose to ship the horse by public train.

The whistle of the engine blew as the train jerked to a complete stop.  Winfrey dropped his book, and yelled, “My God, the horse!” As the trainer ran out to the aisle, he met up with porter who explained that there was a stalled vehicle on the track.  As Winfrey rushed forward to the car where all the horses were stalled, he couldn’t help but imagine all the possible disasters. He discovered Native Dancer with an ankle swollen to the size of a grapefruit. 

This was just the first misfortune in a string of many leading up to the Kentucky Derby.

Camera crews from networks large and small gathered around noon at the Louisville train station awaiting the arrival of The Dancer.  Fans of all ages jostled for the best spot to get a glimpse of The Grey Ghost.  The air was filled with anticipation as the train crept up the track and pulled up to the enormous crowd.  Winfrey was the first to emerge from the train, and was met by track manager, Tom Young.  As they spoke, some men began to construct a ramp from the car to the platform.   They put a thick layer of straw on the ramp, and bordered the sides with bales of hay.

“It’s him!” cried out a boy perched on a fence, as the majestic grey began to appear from the train car being led by grooms, Harold Walker and Les Murray.  McNerney, a writer for the Courier-Journal, wrote of The Grey Ghost, “I’ve watched about twenty Derby winners (arrive) in Louisville, including Count Fleet, Citation, and Whirlaway.  None gave the impression of such sheer power and bubbling over energy as this big grey.”

Arriving at Churchill Downs, Barn sixteen, stall two had been prepared with a heavily bedded, thick mattress of straw for The Dancer.  He settled in nicely, not showing any signs of injury or distress from the earlier event on the train.

Early the next morning, crowds gathered at the rail and exercise riders stopped their horses to watch as Native Dancer came to the track for an easy jog to stretch his muscles. With a quiet, smooth first work on The Downs, his exercise rider, Bernie Everson, began to leave the track.  The Dancer kicked out at a passing horse and began to tie up badly.  Veterinarian Dr. Alex Harthill later said, “It was a major muscle spasm, like a charley horse.  It was very painful, and the horse broke out perspiring.  Everyone was wanting to scratch him…We gave the horse a large dose of what amounted to Gatorade, four or five gallons of electrolytes passed through a stomach tube.  We did that for several days with him, as a matter of fact, he recovered nicely.”

Following this event, Bill Winfrey became extremely protective of Native Dancer.  He refused the media direct access to the colt, only allowing him to be hand walked up and down the shedrow, and would not allow The Dancer to graze any grass for fear of catching an illness from another horse.  Native Dancer was scheduled to work on Thursday partnering with fellow Sagamore horse, Social Outcast, but Winfrey was forced to change it up to Wednesday because Native Dancer was destroying his stall.

To the surprise of the crowd, the two colts’ work was squeezed in after the third race on Wednesday with a six furlong gallop, starting from a walk-up start, beginning at the finish line.  Regular exercise rider, Bernie Everson, was instructed to give Social Outcast a four length advantage at the start, and drop back two more lengths on the backstretch.  Winfrey then wanted Native Dancer to chase Social Outcast until the end of the work, finishing neck and neck.  Winfrey’s goal was for Native Dancer to understand competition, not allowing him to pull away.  Native Dancer’s final quarter was :23 1/5, quite impressive.

Praised by many on the track, multiple owners, and trainers admitted that they always hoped The Dancer would win even when they had their own horse running.  Few people released negative articles about the colt. When he was compared to Citation, jockey Eddie Arcaro couldn’t resist downplaying The Dancer by saying, “He had better be a hell of a horse. He hasn’t proved it yet.  It isn’t fair, the way they’re building him up.  It isn’t fair to the horse, and it isn’t fair to the jockey.” This By this point, Native Dancer had won the Gotham by nine lengths, and the Wood Memorial by an easy seven lengths.  The Dancer had won all his previous starts by a combined sixty-eight lengths without being pressed.  Even before reaching the Kentucky Derby, Native Dancer was a proven horse and well on his way to being one of the all-time greats. This would be just the beginning of Arcaro’s verbal campaign against Native Dancer.

Following the post draw, the morning line odds came out, with Eddie Arcaro’s Correspondent installed as the top betting choice.  However, the bettors were forced to quickly change the odds on Derby Day, when the gathering masses at Churchill Downs purchased over $300,000 worth of winning tickets on The Dancer.

Oblivious to the growing crowds, The Dancer was enjoying a relaxed day in his stall. Owner Alfred Vanderbilt justifiably imagined how stunning the red roses would look against that shining grey coat.

As the loudspeakers announced for the Derby contenders to make their way to the paddock, Les Murray put on The Dancer’s racing bandages, and ran a brush over his coat for the final time.

As a calm before the storm, describes Native Dancer in the saddling paddock.  As usual, Winfrey gave no advice to the jockey he trusted most, Eric Guerin. Guerin had ridden The Dancer in every start of the colt’s life, and knew his mount well.

The Dancer would break from the sixth gate out of ten horses.  It was the largest field of horses he faced up to this point. Guerin knew he would have to stay closer to the back of the field because of its size.  Ace Destroyer loaded first, followed by Correspondent, Ram O’ War, Invigorator, Curragh King, Native Dancer, Money Broker, Social Outcast, Dark Star, loading ninth, who won the Derby Trial impressively, and the final horse to load was the promising Royal Bay Gem.

Twenty million people were glued to their televisions waiting for the break from their living rooms all across the country, matching viewership of the World Series. Watching with hopes of Native Dancer to continue his incredible winning streak, and sweep the Triple Crown. 

As the gates flew open, Ace Destroyer jumped out to the right, at Correspondent, forcing Arcaro to pull his mount back.  25-1 shot Dark Star ran up to the lead, and maintained it easily throughout the race.  Correspondent recovered quickly, and settled two lengths off the pace.  The Dancer was settled in sixth as they passed the grandstand.  It appeared Guerin was holding The Dancer back, because the big grey seemed rank, but the jockey later said he wasn’t restraining The Dancer, but that he did not take a liking to the surface.

Inexperienced jockey Al Popara was moving Money Broker around Guerin on the outside when his mount virtually bumped into The Dancer, precisely at the moment when Curragh King veered into The Dancer’s path.  That bump pushed The Dancer back third-to-last when they went into the backstretch

Nearing the second turn, Guerin asked Native Dancer to move up the track.  Although Guerin had raced The Dancer wide, up to this point, Guerin took Native Dancer to the inside, around the turn.  Native Dancer passed four horses, and was gaining on the leaders with every stride he took, eating the ground as they raced into the homestretch.  His middle quarter of the race took only twenty-three seconds, the fastest any horse has gone.  As they straightened for home, Dark Star was four lengths ahead. 


With horses ahead drifting wide, the odds of Native Dancer getting caught behind others went down.  Dark Star was tiring, and Native Dancer was gaining.  As the crowds roared, the jockeys asked their mounts for their best efforts to win the most important race in the country.  Overcoming challenges that would have eliminated most horses from reaching for the finish line first, Native Dancer was now challenging Dark Star neck and neck to the wire.  At odds of 7-10, The Dancer had suffered his first ever defeat.  Despite the loss, he had proven his ability to overcome adversity and show his great strength, agility and speed that would go down in history.  The twenty million people who watched the seventy-eighth running of the Derby witnessed a stride that measured an unbelievably enormous twenty-nine feet; one foot larger than Man O’ War’s, three feet longer than Zenyatta’s, and four feet larger than Secretariat’s.  That record has stood for fifty-eight years.

Considered the biggest Derby upset in history, I believe that, wire to wire, no horse has ever run such an outstanding race.  Native Dancer’s performance in the seventy-eighth Kentucky Derby only adds to his deserved admiration for an incomparable career in racing.


On a personal note:  I am an outspoken Native Dancer admirer.  He is routed in my love-for-thoroughbred-racing DNA.  I believe he was transformer of the horseracing industry both as a racehorse, but also as a sire.  Obviously, being born in 1996 denies me the joy of any first-hand accounts of The Dancer, but devour memories from others.  For example, I take a Tap Dance class, that every student (except me!) is over the age of sixty.  They tell me stories of when they watched Native Dancer and remember how sad they were when he lost the Derby.  I feel it is important to bridge that generation with my generation by sharing Native Dancer’s life.      



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