Native Dancer is considered by some turf historians and fans as the greatest American horse to ever race. His record has merit to this claim. He won twenty-one of twenty-two races, finishing second by a head in his only loss. That loss however was in the Kentucky Derby to Dark Star. He was voted as the sixth best race horse in the twentieth century by the Blood-Horse magazine.
Native Dancer’s race record is actually one better than the winner of the poll Man O’ War, whose race record was twenty wins from twenty-one races. Secretariat was chosen as the second best followed by in order Citation, Kelso, Count Fleet and Dr. Fager. Native Dancer was a champion in each of his three years of racing including the Horse of the Year award as a four year old. He was denied the HOY honour as a three year old by Tom Fool, who finished eleventh on the Blood-horse poll.
Bred by Alfred G. Vanderbilt, Native Dancer came into the world on March 27, 1950. He was by Polynesian – Geisha by Discovery. His sire Polynesian was headstrong, but was an outstanding classic winning race horse none the less. He is credited with wins in the prestigious Preakness Stakes, Withers Stakes, and the Roseben, Toboggan and Riggs Handicaps. He won twenty-seven of fifty-four races, finishing second ten times as well as third ten times.
Geisha was by Vanderbilt’s great handicap champion Discovery, the 1935 Horse of the Year. Discovery was an easy going sort but had the heart of a champion. He descended from a sire line full of temperamental types as his sire was Display who in turn was by Fair Play, a son of the legendary volatile Hastings. Discovery captured twenty-seven victories from sixty-three starts. He won the Brooklyn and Whitney Handicaps three times each, and also has wins in the Hawthorne Gold Cup, and the Saratoga, Arlington and Stars & Stripes Handicaps. As a sire, Discovery was known as a very solid sire of good producing broodmares.
Native Dancer acquired his grey coat from his dam Geisha, who was a modest winner of one race from eleven starts. She acquired her grey colour from a succession of tail female dams to her third dam La Grisette, a daughter of the grey French sire Rio Herode, the sire of the legendary grey The Tetrarch.
Native Dancer was always a very powerful and strong willed animal, known to get his own way whenever he deemed fit. This attitude was no doubt inherited from both his father and his maternal grandfather’s ancestors. Native Dancer was big (16.2 hands), muscular and had a very long stride. He did have rather short upright pasterns coupled with osselets, a bony growth around his front ankles. His massive physique and pounding running style would prove to be both exciting to watch and costly to his racing soundness. That he was able to compete, very successfully, in twenty-two races is a testament to his courage and sheer athletic ability.
He began his meteoric career on April 19, 1952 at the old Jamaica track in New York. The word was out to the public as he was a 7/5 favourite for the race. He won easily by four and a half lengths. Four days later he won his first stakes race, capturing the Youthful Stakes by six lengths. Native Dancer then took the Flash Stakes, Saratoga Special, Grand Union Hotel Stakes, Hopeful Stakes and Anticipation Purse with absolute ease.
The Futurity at Belmont was next and here he would finally get a serious challenge, but he still made short work of his opponents, winning the race by two and half lengths. He set a new world record in the process, completing the six and one half furlong race in 1:14 2/5. Native Dancer finished his two year old season by winning the East View Stakes. He was the unanimous choice for top two year old, garnering a 130 lb weight rating on the Experimental Free Handicap.
Native Dancer’s legions of fans were anticipating the upcoming classics with great enthusiasm. He was given the nick name “The Grey Ghost Of Sagamore” due to his colour and the home of his stable. Television was in its infancy then and the black and white broadcasts of the day were instrumental in his growing popularity. Since most horses looked the same on the small primitive screens of the day, his grey colouring would stand out, along with his dominating performances.
The winning streak kept right on going when he began his three year old season. Bill Winfrey was the trainer of this big, powerful colt and during the winter he had The Grey Ghost’s ankles fired, to try to ease the burden on his limbs. This took him out of training for a while. Native Dancer won the Gotham Mile and the Wood Memorial before his date with destiny at Churchill Downs.
Native Dancer encountered traffic trouble at the first turn in the Derby and then another log jam at the head of the stretch. Meanwhile the front running Dark Star was rating beautifully on the front and was able to hold on from Native Dancer’s hard charging stretch run after he was able to find clear running. The crowd, who had made The Grey Ghost the shortest priced favourite in Derby history, was stunned, as was the TV audience watching at home. How could this happen? Who can we blame? Did jockey Eric Guerin give him a bad ride? Was he fit enough? Questions with no definitive answers.
Redemption came quickly a week later when Native Dancer won the Withers Stakes followed another week later in the Preakness Stakes. The Belmont Stakes would be a good test to see if he is really a super horse, with bad Derby luck. He beat Jamie K by a neck, the same margin as in the Preakness over the same opponent, to prove that he is indeed a great one. He won the Belmont Stakes with the third fastest time up to that point in history.
Native Dancer was now a bona fide TV star. However he did have his detractors. Eddie Arcaro was of the belief that the Grey Ghost was not as good as Citation was, the horse Arcaro had steered to Triple Crown glory only five years earlier. Arcaro was to get a first hand lesson in how powerful and fast Native Dancer was.
Following his dominating victory in the Dwyer Stakes, where Native Dancer was giving huge weight to all challengers, Arcaro was engaged to fill in for Eric Guerin for the American Derby at Arlington Park. Guerin had been suspended for a riding infraction and was unavailable for the race. Winfrey had instructed Arcaro to not use the whip, unless he absolutely had to, and just let the Dancer run his way. Native Dancer gave Arcaro quite a scare in the race as he decided to just loaf along until the field got to the top of the home stretch. The Grey Ghost then took matters into his own hands and gained eight lengths in the stretch to win comfortably by two. Arcaro would say after the race; “He’s everything they’ve said about him. Sheer power is the only way to describe him”.
The year was completed with two more big victories of five and a half lengths in the Travers and nine lengths in the Arlington Classic. He would not win the Horse of the Year award though as Tom Fool racked up a perfect ten for ten in the older handicap division, which included a sweep of the Handicap Triple Crown, the first time that feat had been accomplished in forty years.
Native Dancer’s four year old season consisted of only three races. He won the Commando Purse and the Metropolitan Mile early in the year giving big weight. While training for the Suburban Handicap, Native Dancer started to experience severe pain in his right foreleg. He was laid him up for three months while he recovered. The big grey champion returned to racing with a victory in the Oneonta Handicap over a sloppy Saratoga track carrying 137lbs. However, The Grey Ghost injured his legs again and was subsequently retired. He was named Horse of the Year off these three races, leading many to believe that he was given the award more for his previous two seasons’ accomplishments than for his abbreviated four year old season.
Native Dancer went back to Vanderbilt’s Sagamore Farm in Maryland just north of Baltimore, to begin his very influential, and to some pedigree experts a controversial, stud career. Since his location was some ways away from many of the top broodmares in Kentucky, he did not receive the class of mares a champion such as he would get on a regular basis.
His best son at stud was 1963 two year old co-champion Raise A Native who became a highly influential stallion siring Exclusive Native, sire of triple crown winner Affirmed, Alydar who would continue the legacy with many champions to his credit, and Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Majestic Prince. The most important son of Raise A Native regarding future pedigrees however would turn out to be Mr. Prospector.
Native Dancer also sired Dan Cupid who in turn sired the great Sea-Bird. Considered as one of the greatest ever in Europe, Sea-Bird won seven of eight races winning the Epsom Derby in scintillating fashion, as well as the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Prix Lupin and the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud. When he retired from racing Sea-Bird took up stud duty in Kentucky until 1972 when he was sent to France.
Allez France, considered one of the greatest race mares of the century, was a daughter of Sea-Bird. She was a G1 stakes winner in all four of her racing seasons. At two she won the Criterium des Pouliches, at three the Poule d’Essai des Pouliches, Prix de Diane and Prix Vermeille. As a four year old Allez France won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Prix Ganay and Prix d’Ispahan, In her five year old campaign she would repeat her Prix Ganay victory.
Sea-Bird also sired champion three year old Little Current (Preakness and Belmont Stakes etc), and major winners Gyr (Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud) and Arctic Tern (Prix Ganay, leading sire in France). He is also the broodmare sire of Assert, Bikala, Northern Sea, Miss Oceana, Larida and Noble Fighter. Sea-Bird sired thirty-three stakes winners in total (18%) in an abbreviated career. He died of colic at the age of eleven in France.
Another son of Native Dancer to have an impact on future generations was Atan. Foaled in 1961, Atan won the only race he ran in and sired only four stakes winners. However one of the four was the good horse Sharpen Up. He in turn sired the very good mare Pebbles, Arc winner Trempolino, G1 winner and consistent sire Selkirk, along with the full brothers Kris and Diesis. Kris would sire Oh So Sharp, winner of the 1000 Guineas and the Epsom Oaks as well as the St. Leger to complete the filly triple crown.
Other good offspring of Native Dancer that became stakes winners are Kauai King (Kentucky Derby), Native Charger (Flamingo Stakes, Florida Derby), Protanto (Remsen Stakes, Whitney Stakes), Hula Dancer (1000 Guineas, Grand Criterium, Champion Stakes etc), Native Prince (Great American Stakes), Gala Performance (Jim Dandy Stakes), Street Dancer (Milady Handicap twice, Santa Ana Handicap), and Dancer’s Image who won the Vandal S, Clarendon S, Grey H, and Maryland Futurity at two and then the Wood Memorial and Kentucky Derby at three. He was subsequently disqualified for his Derby win when a positive drug test found him to have traces of Bute in his system.
Native Dancer became a sire of very important broodmares. His daughter Shenanigans produced the incredible but unfortunate Ruffian. Ruffian was in a class by herself as she would absolutely destroy her mere mortal rivals. She was charismatic and extremely fast. As most know, Ruffian severely broke her leg during in a match race with Foolish Pleasure. After coming out of anaesthesia following surgery to repair her broken leg, she panicked upon seeing the cast and thrashed her leg beyond repair.
Shenanigans also produced the very good sire Icecapade. A graded stakes winner, Icecapade became an influetial sire getting seventy-three stakes winners (13%) including champions Izvestia, Kingsbridge and Ice Cool as well as Breeder’s Cup Classic winner and top class sire Wild Again, and leading two year old sire Clever Trick. Icecapade is the broodmare sire of champion Lady’s Secret, as well as Markofdistinction and Siberian Summer.
Another daughter of Shenanigans is Laughter. She is the dam of multi graded stakes winner Private Terms.
Natalma by Native Dancer was purchased by E.P.Taylor as a yearling and later became a cornerstone broodmare. She of course is the dam of Northern Dancer as well as his full sister Arctic Dancer, dam of La Prevoyante. Natalma is also the third dam of highly successful sires Machiavellian and Danehill.
Native Dancer is the broodmare sire of Bold Captive (dam of Skywalker), Close Embrace (dam of Regal Embrace), Ten Cents A Dance (dam of Versailles Treaty), Flight Dancer (dam of Misty Gallore and Minstrella), as well as champion Godetia, Timeless Moment, Momigi, General Assembly, and the full brothers Royal & Regal and Regal & Royal.
Native Dancer is the common ancestor of a very high percentage of the top Thoroughbreds in the world today. Through his grandsons Northern Dancer and Mr. Prospector, the two most fashionable sire lines today, the name Native Dancer is seen in pedigrees everywhere. Icecapade through his son Wild Again is also very prominent. Other branches from the Raise A Native line such as Majestic Prince, Exclusive Native/Affirmed, and Alydar are within many high class pedigrees. Two other grandsons of Native Dancer, Sharpen Up and Sea-Bird have many descendants, which have bred on with distinction. These lines are constantly crossed with one and another to spectacular results, thus creating inbreeding to Native Dancer.
It is this reason that there are many pedigree experts who believe that Native Dancer is the key source of unsoundness in today’s thoroughbreds. That he was a very large muscled horse with legs that were perceived as not strong enough to support such a massive frame under racing conditions, and a good many of his descendants are of similar build is the precise reason for the controversy. His two most prominent grandsons Northern Dancer and Mr. Prospector were not the soundest of race horses, Raise A Native, a big bodied horse, was retired after only four starts due to leg injuries. It must be said though that there are many closely related horses to Native Dancer and also horses that have two or more crosses to him that have been very sound and superior runners as well. Nijinsky, Affirmed, Pebbles, Kris, The Minstrel, Gone West, Genuine Risk, Alysheba are just a few who had no big issues with leg troubles and also had very good racing careers.
Love him or not, no one can dismiss the racing accomplishments and breeding impact Native Dancer has had on the Thoroughbred breed. He sired forty-three stakes winners (14% of foals) in his stud life. Native Dancer was diagnosed with a tumour in November of 1967. Surgery was performed but upon his awakening from the anaesthetic, he went into shock and died of a heart attack. A small plain head stone marks his grave at Sagamore Farm, his final resting place.
The legend of Native Dancer lives on and is as vibrant as ever. Racing’s first television star, he was truly one of a kind.
(Photo courtesy of Sagamore Farm Archives)