Native Dancer is in the very top echelon of greatest racehorses and sires of all time.  He won 21 of 22 races, with his sole loss coming in the Kentucky Derby.  The “Grey Ghost” was a fan favorite galloping across the screen on black-and-white television sets in the early years of the medium.  He was trained by William Winfrey and ridden by Eric Guerin.

On Kentucky Derby Day 1953, Native Dancer was the overwhelming favorite in the field of eleven.  The fifth choice, at odds of nearly 25-1, was Dark Star, trained by Eddie Hayward and ridden by Henry Moreno.  Dark Star was sired by the Australian-bred Royal Gem, who was located at Warner Jones Jr.’s Hermitage Farm near Louisville.  Jones would one day become the chairman of Churchill Downs.

Native Dancer and Dark Star’s owners were descendants of families whose vast wealth derived from Gilded Age businesses, Alfred G. Vanderbilt II and Harry Guggenheim, respectively.

Native Dancer was transported to Churchill Downs via train and the train wrecked, throwing the colt down in his car, causing one of his ankles to swell to the size of a grapefruit.  How much this contributed to his defeat is, of course, unknowable.

When the starting gate opened in the Kentucky Derby, Dark Star immediately seized the lead and never relinquished it, holding off the late-charging Native Dancer by a head.  The official chart of the race described the troubled trip that Native Dancer had:

“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.”

Eric Guerin received the bulk of the blame in the media and among fans for Native Dancer’s defeat, but Vanderbilt and Winfrey stuck with him.  Guerin rode the colt in all but one of his ten races after the Derby.

Dark Star broke down in the Preakness and never raced again, retiring with a record of six wins, two seconds, and two thirds from 13 starts and earnings of $131,337.  He had moderate success at stud in the United States and France, dying in 1972.

In 2007, readers of the Blood-Horse magazine voted the 1953 Kentucky Derby as the greatest upset ever in the race.  Mine That Bird in 2009 would certainly be in the running for greatest upset, but that race did not have a colt of the historic stature of Native Dancer.

Oral history has it that on the morning of the 1953 Kentucky Derby, Native Dancer’s trainer, Bill Winfrey, encountered a young boy, a stranger, during workouts at Churchill Downs, who volunteered to Winfrey that Dark Star was going to upset the Grey Ghost.

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The weekly series on Kentucky Derby history began on February 20 and ended today.