Kentucky Derby history is full of 3-year-old horses that have come up short in America’s most famous race and then have gone on to achieve stardom or even Hall of Fame careers. None stands out more than Native Dancer, whose only loss in 22 starts came on a fast track at Churchill Downs on May 2, 1953.
Alfred G. Vanderbilt’s Native Dancer arrived on the scene when television was coming of age. Millions of people therefore had the means to see the sensational “Gray Ghost” for themselves (the Derby was telecast nationally for the first time in 1952).
The official Daily Racing Form chart of the 79th Kentucky Derby succinctly told the sad tale of Native Dancer’s fate in the most famous race of his life:
“DARK STAR, alertly ridden, took command soon after the start, set the pace to the stretch under steady rating, then responded readily when set down in the drive and lasted to withstand NATIVE DANCER, but won with little left. NATIVE DANCER, roughed at the first turn by MONEY BROKER, was eased back to secure racing room, raced wide during the run to the upper turn, then saved ground entering the stretch and finished strongly, but could not overtake the winner, although probably best.”
Dark Star, who paid $51.80 to win, had managed to pull off the upset of upsets, winning, as Tom Durkin might say, by a “desperate head” under a masterful ride by Henry Moreno.
Native Dancer’s jockey, Eric Guerin, was roundly criticized for getting his mount into trouble in the 11-horse field and for moving too late in his frantic quest to catch Dark Star. Native Dancer’s classy connections did not fire Guerin, who continued to ride the colt for the rest of his career (with one exception when Eddie Arcaro rode).
Native Dancer is in the same category as Man o’ War and Secretariat, and is categorically one of the very best racehorses of all time. His blood is prevalent in racehorse pedigrees of today. Native Dancer’s daughter, Natalma, was the dam of Northern Dancer, the most influential sire of the latter half of the 20th century.
A story has lingered about a young boy who happened to cross paths with Bill Winfrey, trainer of Native Dancer, at Churchill Downs on the morning of the 1953 Kentucky Derby. The lad politely told Mr. Winfrey that Dark Star was going to beat the mighty Dancer that day.
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