Horses passing the clubhouse at Pimlico Race Course. (Photo courtesy of Maryland Jockey Club)
Click here to read the first installment of Remembering the Dancer, 60 Years Later
Solemn and undisturbed after his 1953 Kentucky Derby defeat, Native Dancer’s connections prepared the star’s train car for his trip from Louisville to his home base at Belmont Park. They went about their business without the fanfare of his pre-Derby arrival. Instead, only a few photographers watched, giving him the treatment of any other midfield finisher. His quiet return to New York was, for trainer Bill Winfrey, an opportunity; a chance to condition his colt without the stress of the national spotlight.
Most of the Dancer’s Derby peers recovered and waited to start at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course in Preakness Stakes. However, Winfrey broke with convention and decided to bring the Dancer out before then for the Withers Stakes. The prospect of waiting three weeks for the Preakness did not please Winfrey, and the Withers was a perfect candidate race. The one-mile Withers Stakes fell two weeks after the Derby, and one prior to the Triple Crown’s second leg.
The Withers has a rich Triple Crown history with a list of winners that includes Count Fleet and Man o’ War. In the 1953 renewal of the race, Native Dancer faced two other young colts: Kentucky Derby third-placed Invigorator and the longshot Real Brother. Social Outcast, an admirable stablemate of both Invigorator and the Dancer, was originally enter but had been scratched due to the sloppy condition of the track. The Morning Telegraph reported that the field was reduced “to the quality of a soggy pretzel at a brew master’s picnic.”
Despite the harsh words, 38,000 people crammed into the Belmont grandstand and paddock. Native Dancer had become a national icon; the first racing star to be viewed from living rooms across the country. Millions watched him on national television for the fourth time in 28 days.
Due to the incredibly small field, betting was limited to win wagers for the Withers. All but $27,168 of $154,909 was put on the Dancer, lowering his odds to 1-20 - the legal minimum. William Boniface of the Baltimore Sun remembered, “That 1-20 wasn’t just coming from all the women who said, ‘Ooh, look at the pretty grey,’ Died-in-the-wool horsemen were betting on him, too. And 1-20 said people really had dismissed the loss to racing luck.”
Fans were still experiencing the sting of the Dancer’s Derby disappointment. When the jockeys came out to the paddock, Eric Guerin received boos from the New York railbirds, who fumed about his losing ride. Ever a professional, Guerin did not respond to their negative gestures. Most importantly, trainer Bill Winfrey and owner Alfred Vanderbilt had never once questioned the Dancer’s rider as many had after the Derby. Confidently giving Guerin a leg up onto the big grey, Winfrey gave the jockey no advice.
At the start, a frisky Native Dancer tried rushing out of the gates, stumbling and allowing Real Brother to make the pace. Invigorator settled behind the leader and Native Dancer held up the rear. Down the backstretch, Real Brother’s lead increased to two lengths, and Guerin repositioned the Dancer just to the outside of Invigorator.
When Invigorator’s jockey asked his colt for a run at Real Brother, Guerin decided to pull the trigger and let the Dancer loose. Around the turn, all three were neck and neck, but by the final eighth, the Dancer had pulled away from the two challengers. Guerin only waved his whip at the Dancer when passing the sixteenth pole. He proceeded to draw away to win with a score of four lengths.
Evan Shipman, a writer from the Morning Telegraph, praised the Dancer: “What a pleasure it is to watch a really good Thoroughbred! So sure is the Dancer’s attack, so deadly is the execution. The decision, when it comes, is the matter of a few strides at the most.”
However, a smashing victory against “soggy pretzels” could never make up for his Derby loss in the eyes of his critics.
Native Dancer shipped to Pimlico the following Tuesday.
PIMLICO IN THE 1950s
Photo courtesy of Maryland Jockey Club
After settling into his stall at the storied track, Native Dancer easily galloped around the dirt oval twice to stretch his muscles for the big race. Overnight rain made for a muddy surface, but the Dancer still managed to impress. Royal Bay Gem’s trainer, Clyde Troutt saw the big grey on the track, and exclaimed, “Look at that big horse! There oughta be a law making a horse like that give weight to my little one.” He shook his head. “It was a shame for a horse like that to be beaten. … But he looks fitter now than at the Derby. He appeared a little drawn in Louisville.”
On Thursday, Native Dancer, worked on the racetrack. The Dancer continued to impress onlookers by working an amazing 1:11 3/5 for a loping six furlongs.
Sunny weather brought 30,000 spectators to the Preakness Stakes on Saturday. Oddly, this was a crowd 8,000 fewer than on the day of the Withers Stakes. Despite the low attendance, betting records were smashed. Long lines weaved under the grandstand as the fan favorites dominated the early races, and $2.28 million was gambled on Preakness day, shattering the earlier record. The previous mark for money bet on the Preakness alone was broken by a half-million dollars. Seventy-eight percent was used to purchase winning tickets on Native Dancer. If that was not enough, approximately two-thirds of the show bets were placed on the Dancer. So much money was put on the "Grey Ghost," the tote board had no room to show the betting totals.
By post time, Native Dancer went off at 1-9. When nemesis Dark Star stepped into the gates, he also got plenty of respect at 2-1. The track was very deep from overnight rain, but it was listed as “fast” before post time. At 5:46 p.m., the Preakness horses loaded into the gates. Royal Bay Gem was the first to load without hesitation; next was Jamie K., now ridden by Eddie Arcaro, Dark Star was third, fourth was Native Dancer, then Ram O’ War, Correspondent, and last was Tahitian King.
All had a clean start, and, as expected, Dark Star took the lead with Tahitian King second, Correspondent fourth, and Royal Bay Gem 16 lengths off the pace. Guerin had placed the Dancer closer to pace in third behind the pacemaker Dark Star, who ran a quarter-mile in a quick :22 4/5. Knowing Native Dancer was about to make his move around the far turn, jockey Jack Headley-Woodhouse reacted quickly when Tahitian King drifted wide in an attempt to shut the hole on the rail. He was anticipating Guerin to tactfully urge Native Dancer through the inside. Headley-Woodhouse was too late, and for him it became a fight for second.
Dark Star charged into the homestretch to the screams of spectators. The Derby upset winner was maintaining his commanding lead and seemed to have a good chance to score another victory over the national hero. But Native Dancer gained with each bounding 29-foot stride, and Dark Star’s ability to hold off the grey’s assault would be put to its greatest test.
Jockey Henry Marino implored the powerful Dark Star, but suddenly, there was no response to his urging. Dark Star had run out of petrol in one single stride and the "Grey Ghost" was alone on the lead. Native Dancer slowed his turn of foot and pricked his ears forward to lope to a Preakness victory. Guerin, alarmed to have the lead earlier than anticipated, went to the whip on the Dancer.
Guerin looked over his shoulder and saw a bay adversary throttling down the track with none other than Eddie Arcaro aboard. As rivals on the racetrack, Arcaro always seemed to get an edge over the much younger Guerin, but not this time - not with the Dancer. Within strides, Arcaro and Jamie K. were pressing Native Dancer and Guerin, and it seemed Arcaro with his longshot mount would serve Native Dancer his second loss. The Dancer, however, reached his highest gear for a second time, and at the wire, he prevailed by a head. His final furlong was timed in a remarkable :12 4/5.
Redeemed, Eric Guerin stood in his irons as he galloped Native Dancer out and brought him back before the grandstand. The Dancer’s groom, Les Murray, snapped the shank on his beloved Preakness winner, and he and the colt’s fellow caretaker, Harold Walker, paraded him into the winner’s circle where he was awarded a blanket of Black-Eyed Susans. A joyous Vanderbilt rushed into the enclosure, excitedly shouting to the reporters, “He cut it a little close there, didn’t he?”
The Dancer was well on his way to earning his permanent home in racing history. On the morning after his Preakness victory, Native Dancer loaded onto a train bound for Belmont Park to claim his superhorse status in the ultimate Test of the Champion: the Belmont Stakes.