Voters for Horse of the Year in 1953 faced a touch decision. Native Dancer had won nine of ten starts that year, at age three, including the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Tom Fool was undefeated in ten starts that year, at age four, including the Handicap Triple Crown.
Some important historical lessons can be learned from the campaigns of 1953-1954, and those lessons will be delineated at the conclusion of this series (not sure at this point whether it will be four or five parts).
I was still a gleam in my daddy’s eye in 1954 and did not see either of the two run. So to tell the stories of these two campaigns I am going to quote in their entirety the “purple prose” of Charles Hatton in the American Racing Manuals of 1954-1955, starting with Native Dancer’s campaign as a three-year-old in 1953. Take it away, Mr. Hatton:
It is idle to attempt comparing Native Dancer with the heroes of past campaigns, but one may say, with some confidence, he was among the most popular performers of all time. This is owing not only to his own exploits, but also to the circumstance that he was the first turf champion whose performances were a regular feature on nationwide TV programs. And he was infallibly “a good show,” winning nine of his 10 starts at three in 1953. His stretch-running technique, and his romantic gray color heightened his own entertainment value. It was easy for TV fans, some of whom had never seen him, to follow his progress in the course of a race. Ironically, the world-famed Kentucky Derby, “covered everywhere,” was the only reversal he suffered in a career which extended over 18 successes from 19 appearances to the end of his three-year-old form. And he went down gallantly, by a diminishing nose, after being impeded. Thus, however one may compare him to past three-year-old champions, Native Dancer contributed far more than most to the sport’s public relations. He raced in New York, Kentucky, Maryland and Illinois, and the throngs taxed the capacities of every course at which he appeared.
An unemotional analysis of the austere records does not suggest Native Dancer the superior of Tom Fool, his four-year-old rival for Horse of the Year honors. But he must have won any popularity contest, for Tom Fool’s racing was confined almost exclusively to New York. They were to have met, to definitely settle the issue in the Sysonby Mile, but unfortunately Native Dancer bruised a hoof which failed to respond to treatment in time to permit him to start. Thus he had to forfeit whatever chance he held of disproving the impressions given by the charts.
This is the second of the American Racing Manuals to include Native Dancer among sketches of the season’s champions. He was the undisputed champion also of the previous year’s two-year-olds. So many of the public were so familiarized with Native Dancer’s form in ’53, it seems pointless to review his campaign at any length. He wintered beautifully, in California, and emerged for his first start in the mile and a sixteenth of the Gotham at Jamaica on April 18. This he won undisturbed, and racing in nothing but stakes he swept through the Wood, Withers, Preakness, Belmont, Dwyer, Classic, Travers and American Derby. The skein was unbroken except for the Derby, in which the chartist conjectured he was “probably best.”
Several of Native Dancer’s conquests were rather “near things.” But he inclined to loaf, and is the sort who would make heavy weather of beating a mule. In the Preakness, Jamie K. attacked him with a vengeance the last furlong, and his regular rider, Eric Guerin, was forced to a drive to win by a neck. Close observers, however, felt sure “The Dancer” was disdaining to take Jamie K. very seriously. The accuracy of this was borne out in the longer, mile and a half of the Belmont, where Jamie K. was within a neck of Native Dancer virtually the entire length of the homestretch, but never really looked like defeating him.
There was another occasion on which the champion gave his backers some concern. This came with the decision of the nine furlongs American Derby at Washington Park, with the Sagamorean carrying 128 and conceding weight, was ridden for the first and only time in his career by a jockey other than Guerin. The Louisianan was temporarily hors de combat by official decree, and Eddie Arcaro was substituted. Arcaro “moved” on the turn out of the backstretch, but Native Dancer did not. With the alarmed Arcaro pumping away frenziedly, The Dancer refused to make his bid until fairly straightened for the run home. Grabbing the bit, he “slammed” his field in one devastating sixteenth, then sauntered casually away to win by two lengths, much to his dismayed jockey’s relief. Native Dancer completed the Derby distance in 1:48 2/5. It was his final appearance of the year.
Returning from Chicago to Saratoga, some heat was noticed in one hoof shortly after his arrival. He had not pulled up from morning exercise to trainer Bill Winfrey’s entire satisfaction. But it was not believed the bruise would interfere with his proposed meeting with Tom Fool in the Sysonby. Apparently, the seat of the injury was deeper than it was originally supposed, and reluctantly his people were forced to decline a meeting with the Greentree four-year-old. He was retired for the remainder of the season. And in passing it may be noted the hoof is reported as good as new, along with his ankles, which were fired for osselets soon after his two-year-old campaign.
By and large, Native Dancer’s campaign had been a tour de force, and it added the not inconsiderable total, even in these days, of $513,425 to his earnings, bringing them to $743,920. He is not out of range of $1,000,000 and Citation’s all-time earning mark.
Native Dancer improved extraordinarily from two to three. Whereas he had been a big, rangy immature colt, he furnished out into a three-year-old of 16.1 hands at the wither, with the port to match. He was growthy and coltish at two. Some points of his conformation lacked definition. A less accomplished youngster might, indeed, have been called “gawky,” or more politely, somewhat gauche in his format. But at three he was tremendous. His middle thickened. His lines became more attenuated and pleasing. And he was possibly the widest horse in training across the loin and hips. Though his croup inclined to droop a bit, like that of his sire Polynesian, he had much evident power about the quarters. His size, muscular equipment and quarters misled some good judges to fancy he would prove wanting in races other than sprints. In this connection, it is recalled that in 1920, Man o’ War had excited the same suspicion because of his unusual size and heavy muscular investiture.
As a two-year-old “The Dancer’s” forearms appeared developed quite out of proportion with his hindquarters, and it was commented that, “It is rather singular to find one horse having the development of a sprinter before the saddle and that of a router behind.” At three, he emerged well balanced, appearing more “of a piece,” as turfmen say.
His head fits him in that it is more notable for its expression of character and strength than for Arabian quality. The profile inclines to be a trifle convex, with a bulge between the eyes, connoting a large brain pan. His jowls are flat, the muzzle small, the ears pleasingly tapered. He has moderate rein length, with no exaggerated crest, and his neck extends into a fairly high, strong wither and a well laid shoulder. The forearm is long, the knees apparently sound and closely knit, the cannons relatively short. The scars of the firing iron leave something to be desired about the ankles.
The Vanderbilt colt has an elegant middle, deep through the heart, without being light of flank. The loin is longer than most, but slightly arched and strong. His hind leg is, perhaps, his salient physical attribute, fairly straight and with a stifle and gaskins suggesting the power of his long, bold racing stroke.
Usually Native Dancer was the largest horse in any post parade in which he took part, and his good spirits and attractive gray coloring enhanced the appeal of the picture he made. He habitually tossed his head, kicking up his heels in sheer exuberance. Clearly, nothing disturbed him, least of all racing, which he accepted as something thought up especially for his diversion. To draw again a comparison with Tom Fool, he had that colt’s imperturbable poise, but was less eager and impetuous once the race was under way. He did not merely beat his fields, he practically insulted them with the arrogance of his leisured, assured attack when he saw the finish looming up. Withal, he was a colorful entertainer. Some critics found time to say he “beat nothing” in the course of his campaign. But after all no horse can be held responsible for the caliber of his rivals. And he was obviously of a class apart.
Studying “The Dancer’s” tabulated pedigree, one finds a rather confusing miscellany of speed and stamina. Actually, his stamina was suspect, not altogether unlike that of his sire, until he demonstrated in the Derby that he was a stayer. Trainer Bill Winfrey himself expressed some skepticism on this point in advance of the race, but the following morning, after his charge had met his only defeat, he philosophized: “I now am sure he will ‘go on’ to the mile and a half distance of the Belmont, or farther if need be.”
Native Dancer is out of Geisha, a medium-sized gray mare by Discovery, and it is generally considered the latter can only have contributed an element of stoutness. But here again the interpretations can be inconclusive, for Geisha comes of the family of Miyako, El Chico and other flying “non-stayers.” The same pedigree could result in a confirmed sprinter. In any case it is pointless to question the source, when Native Dancer has brought in satisfying evidence in his own behalf.
My only comment on the above at this point is of a technical nature. Having had to type the above from copies I made yesterday, I was thinking as I typed that man, some of these paragraphs sure are long, a lot longer than you usually see in blogs these days, a lot longer than you see in any but the most “artsy” of novels. I even thought about breaking up some of the longer paragraphs but rejected that idea. Better to let it stand as originally composed and published. Perhaps people 50+ years ago had much better (longer) attention spans than they do now. Just an observation.