Native Dancer – Close to PerfectionBy Peter LeeA head. About 20 inches.That’s all that prevented Native Dancer from becoming an undefeated, immortal racehorse – bigger than Man O’ War, even Secretariat.Instead, he suffered a defeat in the most important race of his career – the 1953 Kentucky Derby – and no one outside of horse racing circles remembers him.But his legacy lives on in his progeny, and from 1952-1954, he was the most famous animal on the planet.Native Dancer had a lot riding on his 3-year-old campaign. As a 2-year-old, he won all of his nine starts, seven of them in stakes races. He was named Champion 2-Year-Old and was even voted Horse of the Year in two of the three polls (Triangle Publications’ poll gave the award to One Count, a son of Count Fleet). In the Belmont Futurity, he tied the world record for 6 1/2 furlongs in winning by 2 1/4 lengths.Televisions were just becoming popular in the United States, and Native Dancer’s distinct, true gray image stood out among the dull shades that the brown horses created on black and white TVs. People sat transfixed in front of their sets, watching the “Gray Ghost” run and wondering if he would ever be beaten.He was assigned 130 pounds in the Experimental Free Handicap, a hypothetical rating given to upcoming 3-year-olds to evaluate their chances of winning the classic races that year. It was only the fourth time a horse had received that much weight, and the margin between Native Dancer and the second set of horses was seven pounds, the greatest difference in the history of the handicap.He did not disappoint. He won the Gotham Stakes by two lengths and the Wood Memorial by 4 1/2 lengths. Made the 3-5 favorite to win the Kentucky Derby, Native Dancer ran into trouble early. He was bumped by Money Maker as the field went around the first turn, causing him to lose valuable ground. Jockey Eric Guerin didn’t move him toward the front, opting instead to lie back. He had to go wide on the far turn, costing him more ground. He entered the stretch in third place, three lengths behind 25-1 longshot Dark Star. He made his signature stretch run, digging his hooves into the dirt and bounding down the track in enormous strides, but it wasn’t enough. Dark Star prevailed by a head.The nation was stunned. Fans cried as they saw Native Dancer turn for the barn instead of the winner’s circle for the first time in his career. It was his first defeat in 12 starts.After winning the Withers Stakes by four lengths as the 1-20 favorite, Native Dancer got his revenge against Dark Star in the Preakness, starting the race in fourth place and then moving up around the far turn and taking the lead in the stretch. He was able to just hold off Jamie K for the win, taking the race by a neck. Dark Star bowed a tendon in the stretch, finishing fifth. He never raced again.The Belmont Stakes was almost a carbon copy of the Preakness. Native Dancer and Jamie K bore down on the leader, Ram O’ War, on the far turn. Jamie K took a narrow lead, and the two fought stride for stride down the homestretch. Native Dancer managed to pull ahead and win by a neck again.He was not finished. Native Dancer went on to win the Dwyer Stakes, Arlington Classic, Travers Stakes and American Derby. Horse racing fans were ready for him to take on Tom Fool, who was undefeated in 10 races that year, and several racetracks were vying for the meeting. But after the American Derby, Native Dancer’s team found several bruises on his left forefoot, and he was done for the year.The failed meeting between the two – and the chance for Native Dancer to defeat Tom Fool – cost him Horse of the Year, as Tom Fool took the honors. Native Dancer was still named Champion 3-Year-Old.Hopes for Native Dancer were high. His handlers were hoping for him to travel overseas to compete in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and possibly even the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. But after two wins in his first two starts, he pulled up lame after a workout and missed three months. He returned to win the Oneonta Handicap by nine lengths. But he pulled up lame again after a workout and was retired.Despite only three wins, he was voted Horse of the Year for the second time. His career record: 21 wins in 22 starts, with one agonizing second-place finish.Coming next: Native Dancer as a sire.
Check out Peter Lee’s other articles onhistorical racing subjects.
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