The Morning Telegraph’s 1953 Kentucky Derby Edition featuring Native Dancer.
On a dewy spring morning, in the darkness before dawn, a train rattled through Columbus, Ohio, en route to Louisville, Ky. On board a Thoroughbred trainer lay restless, his four horses sleeping under their grooms’ dedicated observation.
Native Dancer – the stable star, the 1953 Kentucky Derby favorite, a national hero - was among the shippers.
Trainer Bill Winfrey tried to take his mind off the Dancer. He picked up a book. He assured himself the colt was safe in his shipping stall. Winfrey had always hoped that Native Dancer would travel in the private train his owner Alfred Vanderbilt had specially designed for shipping his horses, but Mr. Vanderbilt had always chosen to ship this horse by public train.
The engine let out an alarming whistle and all jerked to a halt. Winfrey jolted from his bed, exclaiming, “My God! The horse!”
The trainer raced out into the aisle. A porter explained to him they had just avoided running into a stalled vehicle on the tracks. The panicked Winfrey rushed to his horses’ car and, to his dismay, discovered the stable star had sustained a significantly swollen ankle.
The Dancer’s tumultuous journey for the “Run for the Roses” resurrects itself in my imagination every May. From his train ride through Columbus and his horrific charley horse upon leaving the Churchill track after a morning work, to the moment of climax when Dark Star’s nose hit the wire only a moment before the Dancer’s.
Over half a century after the Dancer filled racing’s headlines, a woman who had horses at the barn where we boarded our two Quarter Horses gave me a slightly beaten red book by Eva Jolene-Boyd, its cover adorned with a black-and-white image of a gray racehorse. It was a Legends biography on my 31-year-old Thoroughbred gelding’s great-great-grandsire, Native Dancer, and it sparked the fire within me – a love of horse racing. He became the driving force behind this new love; he spurred on a self-taught, highly intense curriculum about the age-old sport. He quickly grew into my idol, just as he was to the thousands of young girls growing up in his time.
Native Dancer had an endearing personality to accompany his wealth of talent, and I was completely taken with the accounts of the Dancer’s life in the winner’s circle and beyond – the actual imprint of the DNA that ignited my love for the Thoroughbred. The story of the Dancer and his connections represents all of the reasons I love racing and what is good about the sport.
The Dancer’s Derby
Camera crews crowded at the Louisville train station awaiting Native Dancer’s arrival. Eager followers, young and old, jostled for their own personal glimpse of the “Grey Ghost.” At noon, the train pulled into the station, and Winfrey was the first to emerge. Churchill Downs’ track manager Tom Young greeted the trainer and a crew began to construct a ramp for the Dancer.
The 3-year-old’s caretakers, Les Murray and Harold Walker, brought the Dancer out before the onlookers.
“It’s him!” cried a boy in the crowd. Everyone was awestricken by the Dancer’s appearance. The noontime sunlight glistened on the colt’s commanding build as he looked curiously at the hordes surrounding him. A writer for the Courier-Journal wrote about witnessing the Dancer’s arrival: “I’ve watched about 20 Derby winners [arrive] in Louisville, including Count Fleet, Citation, and Whirlaway. None gave the impression of such sheer power and bubbling over energy as this big grey.”
In anticipation of Native Dancer’s arrival, stall two of Barn 16 on the Churchill Downs backstretch had been prepared with a heavily bedded straw mattress. He took to his new digs well and was seemingly unaffected by the stressful train event.
Early the next morning, crowds gathered at the Churchill Downs rail and exercise riders stopped their horses to watch as Native Dancer came to the track for an easy jog to stretch his muscles. With a quiet, smooth first workout on Churchill Downs’s dirt oval, his exercise rider, Bernie Everson, began to leave the track aboard the son of Polynesian.
Always a rather territorial horse, the Dancer thrashed his back legs out at a passing horse and began to tie up badly. Veterinarian Dr. Alex Harthill later said: “It was a major muscle spasm, like a charley horse. It was very painful, and the horse broke out perspiring. Everyone was wanting to scratch him. … We gave the horse a large dose of what amounted to Gatorade, four or five gallons of electrolytes passed through a stomach tube. We did that for several days with him, as a matter of fact; he recovered nicely.”
Following this event, Bill Winfrey became extremely protective of Native Dancer. He refused the media direct access to the colt, only allowing him to be hand-walked up and down the shedrow. He would not allow the Dancer to graze for fear of catching an illness from another horse. He and his stablemate Social Outcast (also owned by Vanderbilt) were scheduled to exercise on Thursday, but Winfrey opted to send the pair out a day early because the Dancer had become quite energetic in his stall.
To the surprise of the crowd, the two colts’ six-furlong gallop was squeezed in after the third race on Wednesday. The duo started from a walk-up at the finish line. Bernie Everson was instructed to give Social Outcast a four-length advantage at the start, and drop back two more lengths on the backstretch. Winfrey then wanted Native Dancer to chase Social Outcast until the end of the workout, finishing neck and neck. Winfrey’s goal was for Native Dancer to understand competition, not allowing him to pull away. Native Dancer’s final quarter was :23 1/5 - quite impressive.
He was praised by many on the track. Multiple owners and trainers admitted that they always hoped the Dancer would win, even when they had their own horse running. Prior to the Derby, few people released negative articles about the colt, but when he was compared to Citation, jockey Eddie Arcaro was defensive of his Triple Crown winning mount.
“He had better be a hell of a horse. He hasn’t proved it yet,” Arcaro said. “It isn’t fair, the way they’re building him up. It isn’t fair to the horse, and it isn’t fair to the jockey.”
At this point of his career, Native Dancer had won the Gotham by nine lengths, and the Wood Memorial by an easy seven lengths. The Dancer had won all his previous starts by a combined margin of 68 lengths without being pressed. Even before reaching the Kentucky Derby, Native Dancer was a proven horse and well on his way to being one of the all-time greats. Despite the Dancer’s impressive record, members of the media began to agree with Arcaro’s opinion.
Following the post draw, the morning-line odds came out, with Eddie Arcaro’s Correspondent installed as the favorite. However, the bettors quickly changed the odds on Derby day as the gathering masses at Churchill Downs purchased more than $300,000 worth of winning tickets on the Dancer.
Oblivious to the growing crowds, the Dancer was enjoying a relaxing day in his stall. Owner Vanderbilt could already imagine how stunning the red roses would look against that shining grey coat.
The loudspeakers announced that the time had come for the Derby contenders to make their way to the paddock, giving Les Murray the cue to put the final touches on his dear Native Dancer. He wrapped the colt’s legs in his racing bandages and ran a brush over his coat for the final time.
Native Dancer was calm before the storm in the saddling paddock. As usual, Winfrey gave no advice to the jockey he trusted most – Eric Guerin – who had ridden the Dancer in every start of the colt’s life and knew the mount like the back of his hand.
The Dancer would break from the sixth gate out of 11 horses. It was the largest field of horses he faced thus far, and Guerin knew he would have to stay closer to the pace because of its size. Ace Destroyer loaded first, followed by Correspondent, Ram O’ War, Invigorator, Curragh King, Native Dancer, Money Broker, Social Outcast and Straight Face. The impressive Derby Trial winner Dark Star loaded tenth and the final horse to load was the promising Royal Bay Gem.
Twenty-million people were glued to their televisions waiting for the break from their living rooms, matching viewership of the World Series. They watched with hopes of Native Dancer to continue his incredible winning streak and perhaps sweep the Triple Crown.
The gates clattered open and Ace Destroyer jumped out to the right at Correspondent, forcing Arcaro to check his mount. However, he would recover quickly and settle two lengths off the pacesetter. The 25-1 shot Dark Star raced up to the lead and maintained it easily throughout the race. Guerin held Native Dancer in sixth as they passed the grandstand for the first time. Observers thought the big grey was rank under Guerin’s restraint, but the jockey believed he was not taking to the surface well.
Al Popara, an inexperienced rider, decided to move his mount, Money Broker, around Native Dancer’s outside and bumped into the Dancer, precisely at the moment when another horse impeded Native Dancer’s path. That bump pushed the “Grey Ghost” near the back of the field as they went into the backstretch.
Nearing the second turn, Guerin asked Native Dancer to move up the track. Although Guerin had guided the Dancer wide previously in his career, Guerin took Native Dancer to the inside as they traveled around the turn. Native Dancer passed four horses, and was gaining on the leaders with every stride he took. His middle quarter-mile of the 1 ¼-mile race took only 23 seconds. As they straightened for the long homestretch of Churchill Downs, Dark Star was four lengths ahead.
With horses ahead drifting wide, the odds of Native Dancer getting caught behind others went down. Dark Star was tiring and Native Dancer was gaining. As the crowd roared, the jockeys asked their mounts for their best efforts in the most important race in the country. Overcoming challenges that would have eliminated most horses from reaching for the finish line with a strong finish, Native Dancer was now challenging Dark Star neck and neck to the wire.
At odds of 7-10, The Dancer had suffered his first ever defeat. Despite the loss, he had proven his ability to overcome adversity and showed the great strength, agility and speed that would cement his place in racing history. The 20 million people who watched the seventy-eighth running of the Derby witnessed a brilliant racehorse push through numerous disadvantages.
In my Bits N’ Bunny article, Epilogue: Camelot’s St. Leger, I wrote, “ Zenyatta broke the hearts of a nation when her perfect record fell by the shortest of margins to Blame in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic. No doubt the pang of disappointment flooded the hearts of nations upon witnessing the vanquished Camelot cross the wire in the 2012 St. Leger.
“My heart barely tolerates this cheerless emotion for only a few fleeting moments before its imminent eviction. In seeps pride and joy to hand gloom its hat and show it the door. As foals are imprinted at birth by their mother’s touch, I too feel the same touch from my passion – Thoroughbred horse racing - every time the gates fly open.”
Such grand efforts from athletes like Camelot, Native Dancer, and Zenyatta make one appreciate the magnitude of their achievement and a perfect record becomes secondary.
Now, 60 years after the Dancer’s infamous “Run for the Roses,” it seems fitting that I will attend my first Kentucky Derby. The Dancer will be the only horse running through my thoughts as I sing, “My Old Kentucky Home.”
After winning the Belmont Stakes, owner Alfred Vanderbilt leading Native Dancer with Eric Guerin up into the winner’s circle. (Photo courtesy of Horsephotos.com)