On cold winter days such as these, I am limited to the trammels of the house and cannot resist daydreaming of the warm midsummer days at Saratoga in the 1950’s. Flipping through the pages of my favorite books allows me to journey back to a time when Native Dancer set the sport ablaze with ardor and exhilaration…
Racing fans had breakfast on Saratoga’s clubhouse porch on an August morning in 1953. Chatter of the upcoming weekend’s Travers Stakes filled the air, but all fell silent when everyone rushed to the rail. Time had frozen: Exercise riders pulled up their mounts, trainers brought their morning business to a standstill – everything came to a silent halt. With regular exercise rider, Bernie Everson aboard, Native Dancer thundered down the stretch with his colossal twenty-nine foot strides. In this one mile work, The Dancer was greeted by a wave of ovation down Saratoga’s historic home straight. No other racehorse had received such blandishments in a meager work. James Roach of the New York Times later wrote of the spectacle, “It was a moment for a horse owner, horse trainer – and exercise rider – to remember.”
Two days later, 28,260 people gathered at Saratoga for the Travers Stakes. That Saturday broke the track’s record attendance; crowds poured into every crevice of the oldest currently-operating sports venue in the country. People overflowed into the paddocks, which had allowed the public to enter at the time. David Alexander wrote of Saratoga Race Course, “In the great paddock areas of the track, each entrant is saddled beneath a certain tree and his admirers can get close enough to tighten the girth themselves.” The Saratoga crowds were usually polite and respectful of the horses’ space, thus much security was never necessary. However, the sight of the Dancer was infectious, and the fans mobbed the grand horse. His followers walked up to the champion, stroked his neck, and talked to him. Some were spirited enough to pluck several tail hairs. People could have easily been hurt in this situation, but the Dancer, with his gentlemanly countenance, remained calm the entire time. Daniel Scott III, son of Dan Scott, who foaled Native Dancer, was in attendance for the Travers with his father. He said, “He had become an icon, with mobs chasing him and people shouting. It was like the scenes with the Beatles a decade later. Native Dancer had become as popular in the sports world in 1953 as the Beatles were in music in the ‘60’s.” Native Dancer’s panicked trainer, Bill Winfrey, had to shoo a fan away that was inspecting his horse’s legs, and the security guards had to push the masses back to make a path for the Dancer to get to the track.
John Eisenburg wrote in his book, Native Dancer The Grey Ghost Hero of a Golden Age, “The scene before the Travers had Biblical overtones, with thousands gathering to see and touch their idol, and linger in his presence. The Dancer was just a horse, but the public clearly saw him as more, an alluring and profound figure. He embodied all traits that humans attribute to a champion: stamina, grace, determination, beauty, ability, and charisma.”
At odds of 1-20, Native Dancer won by an astounding 5 ½ lengths, giving up to twelve pounds to his competition. Eric Guerin, who rode him in all but one race, said after the Travers. “What a pleasure it is to ride a horse like that.”
The Arlington Classic at Arlington Park, which was indubitably one of Native Dancer’s best performances, was his last race before the Travers Stakes. Into the final turn on the Chicago track, the Dancer moved up into third after running the earlier portions of the race in sixth. It was there when Guerin asked the Dancer for his best effort. The Grey Ghost responded instantaneously, pinning his ears back, and charging for the lead. At the top of the stretch, he had the victory in hand, but he kept running away with the lead. Three lengths, four, five, six, seven lengths! Turf writers, who had gathered from across the country to cover what was heralded as “The Fourth Jewel of the Triple Crown” applauded the Dancer as he romped across the wire nine lengths in the lead. Arch Ward, then editor of the Chicago Tribune, wrote, “It was one of the most devastating knock-out punches in the history of big-time racing.”
The Dancer was a celebrity wherever he went during his racing career, particularly during his three year old year. Early on a spring weekday morning at a Cincinnati train stop, a station mechanic making a customary check discovered the Dancer on his way to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby when he slid open the car door. Stunned by unearthing this national hero, he asked the groom who stood beside the majestic beast, “Is that – is that the Grey Ghost himself?” The Dancer’s groom, Les Murray, confirmed the station mechanic’s sighting. The station mechanic stood awestricken with his jaw hanging by its hinges, and called the surrounding people, “Hey everyone! Over here! You can’t miss this!” Almost immediately, wayfarers were jockeying for a position to see their champion. The Dancer’s stop, which lasted a mere five minutes, was featured in the local paper the next day.
Native Dancer was the first racehorse to spark the fire within me to love horseracing. When I initially became interested in racing, he was the driving force behind learning more about the sport, being the great-great grandsire of my thirty-year-old Thoroughbred gelding, Polka. The Dancer represented everything that a great racehorse should be in my adolescent mind. Native Dancer had an endearing, kind personality despite being described as a horse which made grooms “walk in fear of the biting, kicking, rearing…” The Dancer and his groom were inseparable, he loved his stall mate, a black cat named “Mom”, he was a gentleman when his owner’s children raced about his stall, and he allowed fans to pluck his tailhair in the paddock, bustling with activity. His grey color set him apart from the competition in his time, and he won almost every race in which he competed in heroic fashion. The Dancer is a true legend who should always be revered and remembered.