The Galloping Ghost

Updated: December 1, 2010, 4:06 PM ET
By Terry Conway | Special to ESPN.com

He was the first American equine idol. In the age when flickering black and white ten-inch television pictures were all the rage, Native Dancer stood alongside Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan and Arthur Godfrey as a television luminary in the mid 1950s.

Trainer William C. Winfrey (left), owner Alfred Vanderbilt, jockey Eric Guerin and presenter F. Skiddy von Stade (right) in the winner's circle.
National Museum of Racing and Hall of FameLeft to right: Trainer William C. Winfrey, owner Alfred Vanderbilt, jockey Eric Guerin and presenter F. Skiddy von Stade.
Blessed with power, speed and playful charisma, Native Dancer regularly mugged for cameras and waggled his ears to the delight of his admirers. But more importantly, his image was easily recognizable in those grainy television images when viewers often had trouble zeroing in on the field of browns and chestnuts that all looked alike.

There was no mistaking "The Dancer." The color of gunpowder with a hint of white, his dappled gray coat made it easy for his growing legion of race fans to follow his progress over the course of a race. Pinning his ears back, streaking past rivals and thundering down the home stretch to snatch race after race, Native Dancer galloped into the hearts of millions of Americans.

If timing is everything, then Native Dancer's was superb. Nicknamed the "Gray Ghost of Sagamore, " for his owner Alfred Vanderbilt's farm in Glyndon, Md., he was the first champion to be showcased on nationwide television. With his patented closing rush he thrilled ten million of his followers huddled around their televison sets. Fan clubs sprung up across the land, and mailbags stuffed with cards and letters were delivered to his stable.

Over a three-year span he scored triumphs in 21 of 22 races. His lone blemish, characteristically, was on the sport's grandest stage, the 1953 Kentucky Derby, where he lost by a diminishing nose. A two-time Horse of the Year (1952 and 1954), he was denied a third title by undefeated Tom Fool. Still, many racing historians place Native Dancer in the elite company of Man o' War and Citation.

A large horse standing 16.1 hands, Native Dancer had powerful hocks and hindquarters. He weighed a hefty 1,200 pounds and had a sweet tooth for dandelions. He was feisty around the barn. He once grabbed a large police dog with his teeth and playfully pitched him against a wall ten feet away. In the mornings he galloped with his head held low and pivoted to one side.

In most races Native Dancer took charge with jockey Eric Guerin along for the ride. As he rolled past horses, he cocked his head to give them the once-over on the way by. He had a colossal stride. As he expanded that stride, it was said that he threw his front feet so far forward that railbirds could see the bottom of his hooves.

While Alfred Vanderbilt had a stream of top-notch runners over the years, it was Native Dancer that cemented his reputation in racing history. Born in London in 1912, Vanderbilt was educated at St. Paul's School in New Hampshire, where he subscribed to the Daily Racing Form and ran a winter book on the Kentucky Derby favorites for his friends. His grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, built an empire of ferries, steamships and railroads. When he died in 1877 he left an estate of $100 million, the largest in the U. S. to that point. Yet Alfred grew up with no memory of his father, Alfred, Sr., who died after giving his life jacket to a woman on the Lusitania when German U-boats sank the ship in the Atlantic.

After the elder Vanderbilt's death his Sagamore Stable continued to thrive under the direction of his wife, Margaret Emerson Vanderbilt. Her father, Isaac Emerson, purchased a 250-acre tract from a farmer in 1926 in attempt to lure the racing operation, his daughter and her young son to the scenic Worthington Valley.

cated roughly 20 minutes northwest of downtown Baltimore, today not much has changed in these parts from the 18th-century. You'll find large tracts of preserved lands and lovely fieldstone homes. The Worthington Valley has been the home of the famed Maryland Hunt Cup each spring since 1894.

Emerson, a Baltimore chemist, had patented and amassed a fortune selling Bromo-Seltzer, the upset-stomach remedy. He would spend $500,000 on a pair of training tracks, barns, paddocks and housing for workers at the newly named Sagamore Farm (a Sagamore is an Indian chief). The farm was a gift for Margaret, a skilled horsewoman who had won skeet-shooting contests on the French Riviera.

At age nine, young Alfred witnessed his first horserace at Pimlico Race Course.

"I don't go to the races because I love horses, " Vanderbilt once said. "It's like the person who goes to the circus and falls in love with whole show, not just the elephants."

Tall and handsome, Alfred Vanderbilt, Jr. epitomized the racing blueblood. At the lowest point of the Depression, Margaret presented Sagamore, its racing stable and $8 million to her son as a 21st birthday gift.

For the next four decades Sagamore was where Vanderbilt's yearlings and two-year olds trained and his stallions were based. In 1932 Vanderbilt registered his racing colors, a lovely pattern of white and cerise diamonds. Recognized as one of the top thoroughbred operations in the country, at its peak Sagamore grew to nearly 1,000 acres with 20 buildings and nearly 70 full-time employees including trainers, exercise riders, grooms, veterinarians, blacksmiths and grounds managers.

Hands-on at the farm, Vanderbilt was an astute owner and breeder. His line of stars commenced with Discovery, who won six stakes races in 1934, capturing 27 of his 63 races and later sired 25 runners that were stakes winners. Other champions Vanderbilt (who passed away in 1999) bred included Petrify, Conniver, Bed o' Roses, Next Move and Jam.

But it was Native Dancer who brought Vanderbilt his greatest glory. It was just after two in the morning on March 27, 1950 at the Scott Farm in Lexington, Ky. when Native Dancer dropped into the world. The leggy son of Your Host was nearly a month past due. The son of Polynesian and the dam Geisha, he began training for his racing career at Santa Anita Park during the winter of 1952. His impressive workouts caught all the horsemen's eyes long before he made his first start.

"The gray is the fastest horse I've ever trained," trainer Bill Winfrey told reporters. "He shows good times in workouts, but that's not what's impressive. It's the fact that the big gray does it without any effort. He actually seems to be holding himself back."

The winner of nine consecutive races in 1952, his odds tumbled each time Native Dancer hit the track. He became the first two-year old named Horse of the Year. White-hot (11-for-11) heading to Churchill Downs in 1953, Native Dancer was the shortest-odds favorite in Derby history. But, it all came crashing down. Bumped badly in the start, and then again in the stretch, he came flying in the stretch, closing and closing but missed by a whisker in a photo-finish to longshot Dark Star.

His rider, Eric Guerin, was heavily criticized for several decisions he made in response to traffic problems during the race, and it was said that "Eric took Native Dancer everywhere on the track except the ladies' room." Native Dancer quickly redeemed himself with a four-length victory in the Withers Stakes then captured the Preakness Stakes, the Belmont Stakes and the Travers Stakes. The beloved dappled gray never lost again that season. A bruised left forefoot scratched him from a showdown with four-year old Tom Fool. Though he won nine of ten races, Native Dancer lost out to Tom Fool (10-for-10) as Horse of the Year in 1953.

Still dealing with foot injuries, The Dancer was just three for three as a four-year old. His 1954 campaign was highlighted by a dramatic win in the Metropolitan Handicap, making up seven lengths in the straight, and getting up to win by a neck. Another serious foot bruise ended his racing career with a bankroll of $785,240 that placed him fourth all-time in earnings. For a second time, he was saluted as Horse of the Year.

Epilogue

Returning to Sagamore Farm, The Dancer became a mighty sire. His sons Kaui King (1966) and Dancer's Image won the Kentucky Derby, while his daughter Natalma was the dam of the legendary Northern Dancer. Thanks to his paternal grandson Mr. Prospector and Northern Dancer, his maternal grandson, Native Dancer's name will be forever etched in the annals of racing. Television's first equine super-hero died following intestinal surgery at the young age of 17, and was buried in Sagamore's cemetery under a stand of sugar maple trees.

The president of both Belmont Park and Pimlico, Vanderbilt's legacy included orchestrating the fabled match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral in 1938. He captained a PT boat in the South Pacific during WW II and was awarded the Silver Star. A racing fan his entire life, Vanderbilt spent August in Saratoga. He died at age 87, at his Brookville, N. Y. home after watching morning workouts at the track.

Vanderbilt sold Sagamore to a local developer James Ward in 1986, but over the next two decades it fell on hard times, and became best known for its sagging fences and the weedy, rock-strewn training track. In 2007 Maryland native Kevin Plank, founder and CEO of Under Armour sports apparel, purchased it and carefully crafted a plan to resurrect the 530-acre farm in Glyndon, Md. It was the fall of 2007 when the filly Shared Account stepped off a van onto Sagamore Farms, among the first group of yearlings bought by Plank. On November 5, 2010, Shared Account snatched the $2 million Breeders Cup Filly and Mare Turf race, defeating Midday, one of the best mares in the Europe.

Terry Conway has been a regular contributor to The Blood-Horse magazine since 2003. He wrote a Sunday column on racing for several years for the Chester County (Pa.) daily newspaper and covers racing and the horse world for a number of regional magazines in the mid-Atlantic area. In addition, he has written many historical articles on the art world and business entrepreneurs for a variety of national and regional magazines. Contact Terry at tconway@terryconway.net