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Native DancerThe Gray Ghost Hero of a Golden Age
By John Eisenberg
Warner BooksCopyright © 2004 John Eisenberg
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHe was a sprinkle of light on a dark canvas, the only grey horse in a dizzy tumble of bays, blacks, and chestnuts coming down the stretch. The 40,000 fans crowded into Belmont Park on September 27, 1952, could easily pick him out and see he was in trouble, trapped between and behind other horses with the finish line fast approaching. Only days earlier, a columnist for the New York Morning Telegraph, a newspaper that focused on horse racing, had wondered in print, "Is Native Dancer Invincible?" With two furlongs left in the Futurity Stakes, one of American racing's most important events for two-year-olds, the horse's aura of invincibility was being challenged as never before.
He had reached the finish line well ahead of his rivals in his prior seven races at New York tracks in 1952, his renown building with every success. The sportswriters at New York's seven daily newspapers had hailed him from the beginning as a young horse to watch, and he had yet to disappoint. Muscular and riveting, with a gargantuan stride and an unyielding will, he had ambled along in the middle of the pack in every race, constrained by his jockey, Eric Guerin, until he was told it was time to sprint to the finish line; then, in a transformation as stunning as it was consistent, he lowered his head, lengthened his stride, accelerated past his rivals, and left them behind, usually in just a few moments. He had won such races as the Youthful Stakes, Saratoga Special, and Hopeful Stakes, and now New York's hard-boiled racetrack crowd had turned out to see if he could win a race that often determined the best two-year-old in America.
It was a typical racing crowd, composed mostly of men dressed in coats and hats, with a smattering of women and no children. Belmont's grandstand, opened in 1905, seated just 17,500, so every inch of the aisles, aprons, and terraces was filled. The crowd was sweaty and testy, knowing and charged-up. Racing was at a spectacular zenith of popularity across the country, with stables such as Calumet Farm and jockeys such as Eddie Arcaro as familiar to sports fans as baseball star Mickey Mantle and heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano, and major tracks routinely attracting 50,000 fans for important races. The hordes had come to Belmont for one reason on this sunlit September Saturday: to bet on Native Dancer in the Futurity, a mad dash of six and a half furlongs down the Widener Straight Course, a straightaway chute cutting diagonally across Belmont's main track.
The air had been electric in the saddling paddock before the race. Hundreds of fans surrounded the Dancer and shouted encouragement to the familiar trinity of men responsible for the horse: Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, the handsome millionaire who had bred the Dancer and now campaigned him; Bill Winfrey, the youthful trainer who had yet to make a false move with the horse; and Eric Guerin, the twenty-eight-year-old Cajun jockey who rode all of Vanderbilt's top horses under a contract arrangement. Long lines at the betting windows snaked through the crowd as the Dancer's odds dropped in the tense minutes before the race. He was 7-20 by post time, his allure so powerful that the Big Apple wise guys accustomed to angling for the slightest edge had just shrugged and given in to getting thirty-five cents on the dollar.
The other nine horses in the field were supposedly some of the nation's best two-year-olds, but they had received scant attention from the fans. They were just the supporting cast in this star vehicle. The second choice, Tiger Skin, owned by Jock Whitney's Greentree Stable, had provided a modest challenge to the Dancer in the Hopeful weeks earlier at Saratoga before fading in the stretch. A colt named Tahitian King had already lost three times to the Dancer but was being ridden now by Arcaro, the king of America's jockeys. Little Request was a California speedster expected to set a fast early pace. Dark Star was the best of Harry Guggenheim's Cain Hoy Stable. None were given much of a chance of beating the Dancer.
Winfrey offered Guerin a leg up with the advice he always gave: "Just ride him with confidence." Wearing a white cap and Vanderbilt's silks of cerise and white diamonds with cerise and white sleeves, the jockey jogged the horse down the chute along with the rest of the field. One by one, the horses were loaded into the starting gate as early evening enveloped the track and a slanting sun cast lengthening shadows. After a brief pause, the gate doors opened and the horses came charging out. A roar went up from the crowd. Was there a better sports moment than a fast horse's reach for greatness?
Seen from the grandstand, horses on the Widener course started as tiny, vague shapes in the distance and grew larger and clearer to the fans only as they neared the finish line in front of the grandstand. The crowd relied on track announcer Fred Caposella's distinctive nasal call, listening for any mention of the Dancer. Guerin settled the horse five lengths behind Little Request as the Californian set the anticipated fast pace, covering the first half mile in 46 2/5 seconds.
Races on the Widener course were often won by top jockeys, their skills especially valuable on the seldom-used track. Any jockey could tell when he had covered a half mile or was turning for home on the main oval, but those markers were harder to judge on a straightaway. Jockeys with less ability or poorer instincts often moved at the wrong time, and in a short race for young horses, that was usually fatal. "Jockeyship often took effect on the chute," recalled Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens, who began his career in New York in 1950. "You had to be pretty darn good to win the Futurity."
Guerin had won it on Blue Peter in 1948, and after navigating an easy half mile on the Dancer, he inched the horse out of the pack and toward the front. It was time to make the winning move the crowd had expected. But just as the Dancer's ears went back, Arcaro, a jockey so adept at measuring pace and timing moves he was nicknamed the Master, struck boldly. He drove Tahitian King, a 10-1 shot, through a hole on the far rail, past Little Request and into the lead. The crowd screamed with surprise as Caposella's pitch rose and Little Request, suddenly fading, blocked the Dancer's path and stalled the favorite in the pack. The big grey had never experienced anything like this.
If any jockey could take a lesser horse and steal the Futurity, it was Arcaro. At age thirty-six, he was still in the prime of a career that had included five Kentucky Derby victories and dozens of other triumphs in major races such as the Futurity, which he had won three times. He was at his best in the big events, and his move on Tahitian King was a classic. Knowing he wasn't on a horse that could beat the Dancer in a stretch duel, he had preemptively grabbed the lead, hoping the favorite might get blocked long enough to cause problems. The plan had worked, and Arcaro, sensing a possible upset, asked Tahitian King for a finishing kick.
That the Dancer was behind so late in a race wasn't unusual. He had trailed in all of his races until making a late move, then often, curiously, loafed to the finish line once he had established his superiority, almost as if he wanted the others to catch him. After months of observation, Winfrey had deduced that the horse preferred the company of others when he raced; running alone and in front bored him, it seemed. Winfrey had thus conditioned him to race behind the front-runners, in traffic, until it almost seemed too late, accelerating just in time to win at the end, leaving little time for loafing.
But if it was normal that he was behind Tahitian King with a quarter mile left in the Futurity, it wasn't normal that horses were in front of him and on either side, leaving him without a running lane. Guerin knew he had to react quickly. A successful rider on the New York circuit, known for his cool head and steady hand, he recognized that the race was on the verge of getting away. He hesitated, hoping the pack around him would begin to break up, and knowing he was in trouble if it didn't. Magically, it did: Little Request dropped toward the rear, fading fast, and a sliver of daylight opened to Guerin's right. He steered the Dancer into the opening, loosened his grip on the reins, and shouted at the horse. Back went the Dancer's ears and out went his stride, his reach so extended that, it was said later, you could see the bottoms of his hooves at midstride.
In the career of every top athlete, equine or otherwise, there is a moment when it becomes clear this is no ordinary competitor. For Native Dancer, that moment came in the final two hundred yards of the Futurity. Once he had found running room and accelerated, he drew even with Tahitian King so quickly that Arcaro had no chance to react. It almost resembled a deft magician's trick: he was pursuing Tahitian King one second, eyeball-to-eyeball the next. Cheers soared into the air, and just as quickly, the Dancer wrested away the lead and took aim at the finish. He had gone from fourth to first in five remarkable steps without Guerin even drawing his stick.
A combination of factors would send the horse's popularity soaring in the coming months: his prodigious talent; his come-from-behind style, which exhausted his fans but left them wanting to see more; the timing of his arrival, at the dawn of the TV age; and the sheer humanness he exuded with his limpid eyes and charisma. But of all the factors, none were more important than, simply, his color. His grey coat stood apart in any equine crowd, discernible not only to fans at the track but also to those watching on TV.
A fast grey was a phenomenon. Only one of every one hundred thoroughbreds was grey in 1953, and through the years, other than a stallion named Mahmoud that C. V. Whitney had imported from England and a colt named First Fiddle that had won some races during World War II, greys had not distinguished themselves in American racing. Many horsemen had long considered them unlucky, lacking stamina, or even diseased, as the legendary Italian breeder Federico Tesio had written. "It wasn't prejudice so much as a sense of caution and reservation," longtime Daily Racing Form columnist Joe Hirsch recalled years later. "Greys just were different. It was a sense of racism, I suppose."
Greys would have disappeared entirely from racetracks around the world in the late 1800s if not for a French stallion named Le Sancy, the single horse from which all modern grey pedigrees are traced. Le Sancy's son, Le Samaritain, won the French St. Leger, a major race, and sired a colt named Roi Herode. After a respectable racing career, Roi Herode retired in Ireland and sired a brilliant colt named The Tetrarch, a light grey with white patches dotting his coat. Nicknamed the Spotted Wonder, he won all seven of his races as a two-year-old in England in 1913, then was injured and retired to stud, where he sired a speedy filly named Mumtaz Mahal and many other winners.
The Tetrarch restored enough faith in greys to keep the line alive in England and America, yet many owners, breeders, and horsemen still avoided them, and racing secretaries were still writing "grey only" races into their condition books as late as the 1940s, believing the curios would draw women to the track. Even in the early 1950s, many horsemen still saw them as sissified novelties and claimed, only half jokingly, that if you came across a grey or a horse with three or four white legs, you might as well cut off its head and feed it to the crows.
There was no substance to the notion that greys were genetically inferior, of course. Coloring had no effect on a horse's ability to race. The grey tint in the Dancer and others was attributable to a lack of pigmentation in some hairs, leaving the coat a blend of dark and light hairs that appeared grey from a distance. Many greys were born dark and died white, and spent much of their lives in a state of transformation from one extreme to the other. The Dancer, colored chocolate brown at birth, was now a rich dark grey with patterns of light rings just visible in his coat. His sire, Polynesian, was a bay, but the genes of his dam, Geisha, had dominated his coloring. Geisha was a grey great-great-granddaughter of Roi Herode and a daughter and granddaughter of greys. Now her son was a grey, becoming more famous every day.
Those who still doubted him because of his color had no argument left after his move to the front in the Futurity. Many in the crowd had thought he was beaten, but he had broken free from the pack with a breathtaking burst, and now, with seventy-five yards to go, embarked on the triumphant sprint many had envisioned. He drove forward in a grinding gear, for once not easing up with the lead as his slanting shadow bobbed farther ahead of the others. His rivals were left behind, their inferiority underlined. The Dancer was two and a quarter lengths ahead of Tahitian King at the finish line, and nine lengths ahead of every other horse except the distant third-place finisher, Dark Star.
There was a cheer, and then another, even louder, when the winning time was posted. The Dancer had run the race in 1:14 2/5, as fast as any horse anywhere had ever covered six and a half furlongs on a straightaway course. He had tied a world record! A two-year-old named Porter's Mite had set the record on the Widener course fifteen years earlier, carrying three fewer pounds than the Dancer. "I'm sure he would have broken the record if we hadn't been fighting a head-wind the whole way," Guerin told reporters. The jockey had won a Kentucky Derby and stood in hundreds of winner's circles, but clearly he was moved by what he had just experienced. "I don't believe," he said, "that I have ever ridden a better horse."
More cheers rained down as Lester Murray, the Dancer's elderly black groom, attached the shank and held him in the winner's enclosure at the foot of the grandstand. Vanderbilt and Winfrey posed for win pictures as reporters surrounded Arcaro, who could only shake his head. "I wish the race had been six furlongs instead of six and a half," the Master muttered. "I thought I had it won until that grey horse just smothered us."
It was a busy sports Saturday in New York and across the country, with Notre Dame playing Pennsylvania in college football before a national TV audience and 75,000 fans in Philadelphia, the pro football season kicking off, and tickets selling for the World Series between the Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers beginning the next week. Baseball was dominating the talk on the streets of New York. There wasn't much room in the papers for big news from Belmont. But Native Dancer had given the sports editors no choice. As Joe H. Palmer, the esteemed racing writer for the New York Herald Tribune, wrote in his column the next day, the grey colt had "just plain murdered the field in the Futurity," raising glorious echoes of past champions such as Count Fleet, Citation, and Man O' War.
Excerpted from Native Dancer by John Eisenberg Copyright © 2004 by John Eisenberg. Excerpted by permission.
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