Native Dancer, 1954

I resume with Charles Hatton’s description of Native Dancer in 1954 from the 1955 American Racing Manual. Take it away, Mr. Hatton.

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A champion–hailed rather than merely acknowledged–each of his three seasons in competition, Native Dancer was voted Horse of the Year in 1954. The balloting for this distinction lacked the spontaneous unanimity accorded Busher and some others of the past, however, for “The Dancer” ran only three times as a four-year-old, and a number of the critics felt the three-year-old High Gun more deserving of the honors on the basis of his attainments during the year. But nobody with the vaguest knowledge of form questioned he was the classiest performer in training, and many regard the marvelous gray as a Horse of the Ages, one whose challenging record of 21 victories in 22 starts will be quoted for posterity by generations of turf commentators. We have heard his feats extolled by no less an authority than the Aga Khan at Longchamp, and in a feature chronicling his career Time Magazine termed his ability a kind of genius.

Time after time during his three years’ activity the turf-going public and a vast nation-wide TV audience saw him in imminence of defeat, then snatch the brand from the burning in one astonishing rush. Only once, in the Kentucky Derby, when Dark Star lasted to beat him a diminishing nose, did his prodigious stretch run fail him. Actually, Native Dancer was a loafer, who seemed to know the exact location of the finish and who was contemptuous of his rivals, delaying his run until the last instant. Such skillful jockeys as Eric Guerin and Eddie Arcaro were powerless to induce him to extend himself if he chose to time his move. This made for some dramatic races and spectacular finishes, and packed thrill upon thrill for his doting public.

It would be sheer supererogation to review Native Dancer’s racing career in detail here. Suffice it to say he won all his nine starts at two, including the Hopeful and the Futurity, and at three accounted for nine of his 10 engagements, among them the Preakness, Belmont, Classic, Travers and American Derby. Perhaps it will be recalled that efforts were made to bring him and the four-year-old Tom Fool together at scale in the mile Sysonby at Belmont Park that autumn, but unfortunately for the hopes of the turf world the Sagamore colt bruised a hoof in August and was perforce retired for the remainder of the season.

The injured foot responded to treatment during the fall and winter, which Native Dancer spent at Sagamore Farm in Maryland, and early in 1954 he was again placed under saddle, trainer Winfrey taking him to Belmont Park to prepare him for spring engagements. The first of these was the important Metropolitan Handicap of one mile. By May 7 the son of Polynesian was ready for a six-furlong race, selected to season him for the more exacting events ahead. Under allowance conditions, it engaged a field of seven, with Native Dancer in his customary role of odds-on favoritism, though he carried 126 pounds and made some generous weight concessions.

Ever a big horse, the gray stripped for his first four-year-old appearanceĀ  a shade over 16.1 and a thoroughbred of massive dimensions. He drew a large, admiring gallery to the paddock to see him saddled.

With his regular jockey, Guerin, in the stirrups, he dawdled along to the stretch, then bowled over his opposition with consummate ease, winning in 1:11 4/5. The going was fast, but “Dancer” was impartial to track conditions, and he cooled out satisfactorily.

Epic Performance

Then on May 15 came the Metropolitan itself, in which the Vanderbilt homebred gave one of the epic performances punctuating the long history of that stake. Carrying topweight of 130 pounds, he was required to concede 13 to Straight Face, recent winner of the Dixie, and 24 to Flaunt, lightweight in a field of nine. Straight Face had won the Pimlico stake with gusto, and he badly frightened Native Dancer’s backers in the Metropolitan.

The favorite refused to take the Greentree gelding seriously in the run down the backstretch, with the consequence that the latter was six lengths in front of him a quarter-mile to go, and with no indication of faltering despite the realistic pace. Entering the long homestretch, Native Dancer lengthened stride and set about attempting to reduce Straight Face’s advantage. He had caught a grim rival, however, and it was slow, hard work, with Straight Face still four in front at the furlong pole. While his admirers watched hopelessly, the champion kept doggedly at his task. It still seemed impossible he could win 50 yards from the finish, but with one desperate thrust he got his neck in front. The time was a creditable 1:35 1/5, the first six furlongs run in 1:10 1/5. Viewed from any perspective, it was one of the brilliant performances of late years.

No more was seen of Native Dancer until August 16 at Saratoga Springs, when he appeared for a handicap called the Oneonta. The Vanderbilt champion had been assigned 137 pounds for this otherwise unimportant seven furlongs, and the track was sloppy. Only a stable-mate, First Glance, carrying 119 pounds, and the presumptuous Gigantic, carrying 107, went to the post with him in this exhibition. He won a bloodless victory, by nine casual lengths.

Though nobody guessed it at the time, that was his finale. His owner had for months toyed with an adventurous thought to fly him to France for the Arc de Triomphe in the fall, but soon after the Oneonta the colt was found to be lame following a workout. Plans for a far-flung campaign had to be abandoned and it was announced that Native Dancer would be retired to stud, making his first season at Sagamore in 1955 at a fee of $5,000 for a live foal.

The Oneonta brought Native Dancer’s total earnings to $785,240. There was some idle conjecture whether he could have become the leading money spinner of all time with a bit better luck. But, for the sake of candor, he simply did not stay sound. He had been fired for osselets at the end of his two-year-old season, and each of his subsequent campaigns was interrupted by the vicissitudes of racing and training.

Native Dancer developed noticeably as a physical specimen from two to three, when his progress was almost abnormal, and again from three to four, when he filled out his huge frame so abundantly he became something of a picture horse, with almost no vestige of coarseness. Nature also favored him in respect to his color. It faded from a kind of undecided roan at two, to a dappled gray at four, and his head now is almost entirely white. Like other grays, he will in time become white. If he would not now take the blue at any horse shows, he is a thoroughbred of such commanding presence he would certainly elicit admiring attention.

His head is more notable for its suggestion of strength, and its characterful expression than for Arabian chiseling and refinement, though the ears are set on close together and have a neat, inward turn. He has a good, bold eye and a deep, flat jowl. Subtly enhancing the appearance of his frontispiece is his neck. It developed an arching crest, which narrows artistically as it converges on the poll and throatlatch.

The colt’s forearm, shoulder and brisket always were among his more salient attributes physically, and these developed proportionately over the winter, particularly the forearm, which has obvious and exceptional strength. Even at two he had the muscular equipment of a mature horse before the saddle.

Native Dancer thickened bodily from three to four, and his quarters, broad as a Percheron’s, developed in exaggerated fashion, so that he appeared better balanced and shorter coupled than he had in earlier campaigns. The tout ensemble finally was completed, and it was something to seduce the horseman’s eye. Whereas he had seemed to have unusual length at two, and to be a trifle higher behind than in front, the withers became more conspicuous as he matured, giving him a superb top line with a slightly arched loin.

In considering his underpinning, one is drawn to his elegant hind leg, remarkably straight over the hock, with great length to the hip and short cannons. This, together with the muscularity of his stifle and gaskins, accounts for the tremendous leverage of his racing stroke. His extended action was more noteworthy for sheer strength and propulsion than for graceful fluency, but he often was first out of the gate and he could accelerate as it became necessary.

Virtually all the difficulty which Native Dancer encountered in training was from the knees down in front, as in the instances of most others of his species. His knees were never suspect, and his ankles flattened out after his osselets were treated at two.

He was temperamentally an interesting animal, full of spirit, indeed almost arrogant at times. This last was manifest in the leisurely aplomb with which he awaited deep stretch to make his attack on the leaders. He seemed imbued with the utmost confidence that he could run down any horse he could see at will. And as one might suppose, he was what horsemen call “a good doer.”

Native Dancer’s extended pedigree also affords an interesting study, in that it is a curious amalgam of staying and sprinting strains. As a two-year-old, his stamina was suspect, because his sire, Polynesian, had seemed to like the first mile the best, despite his success in the Preakness at a mile and three-sixteenths. Moreover, his dam, Geisha, came of the family of La Grizette, one which had produced such flyers as Miyako and El Chico, but never a prominent stayer. However she was by Discovery, who was a tremendous weight carrier and a top class middle distance performer.

Native Dancer is something of a “sport” of bloodstock production. For usually, as the sagacious Ivor Balding has observed, when one breeds a sprinter to a cup horse in the hope of achieving a happy combination of the two talents, he ends up with a performer who has “the speed of the cup horse and the stamina of the sprinter.”

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“He seemed imbued with the utmost confidence that he could run down any horse he could see at will.” Remind you of any recent thoroughbred????

In tomorrow’s conclusion to this series I will attempt to delineate some historical lessons to be learned from the campaigns of 1953-1954.

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4 Responses to Native Dancer, 1954

  1. Pingback: Native Dancer, Fourth Generation | Boojum's Bonanza

  2. Jordan says:

    Did Hatton call Native Dancer horse of the Century before Secretariat?

    • ddink55 says:

      Not to my knowledge. The closest statement of that kind is in this post:

      “But nobody with the vaguest knowledge of form questioned he was the classiest performer in training, and many regard the marvelous gray as a Horse of the Ages. . . .”

  3. Barry L Tannenholz says:

    This same question was asked on another site, which cited Georgeff, Citation’s biographer, as the source. Hatton did write on November 17, 1967 that Native Dancer was “one of the few truly great performers in 300 years of American racing.” Let’s put it this way, he held Native Dancer in the highest possible esteem and was brought to tears when informed of his death. He wrote, “Some have said that ‘for the great, death dies. The Dancer will live on indefinitely in his species.” He didn’t live to see his prophecy fulfilled. Native Dancer is now, along with Nearco, the most influential sire of the past 150 years. So if he did in fact call Native Dancer the Horse of the Century, he had good reason.

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