Known as the “Gray Ghost,” Native Dancer was one of the most prolific racehorses of the 20th century, winning 21 of his 22 lifetime starts and becoming the sport’s first television superstar. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine and was a fan favorite everywhere he raced.
A son of Polynesian out of the Discovery mare Geisha, Native Dancer was foaled March 27, 1950 at Scott Farm near Lexington, Ky. Bred and owned by Alfred G. Vanderbilt, Native Dancer was sent to his owner’s Sagamore Farm in Maryland shortly after being foaled.
Native Dancer’s pedigree suggested he could become something special. Polynesian won the 1945 Preakness Stakes, while Geisha was by Discovery, a champion in the 1930s and winner of both the Whitney and Brooklyn handicaps three consecutive years. Through Discovery, Geisha traced back to Fair Play, the sire of Man o’ War.
Trained by William C. Winfrey, Native Dancer was prepped for his racing career at Santa Anita and was made the 7-5 favorite for his career debut at Jamaica on April 19, 1952. Native Dancer did not disappoint, winning by 4½ lengths with jockey Eric Guerin aboard. Guerin rode Native Dancer in 21 of his 22 career starts. Four days after breaking his maiden, Native Dancer won the Youthful Stakes by six lengths before being sent to Saratoga. At the Spa, Native Dancer won four races that August: the Flash, Saratoga Special, Grand Union Hotel and Hopeful.
Native Dancer was given three weeks off after Saratoga before returning in the Futurity Stakes at Belmont. Blocked early before reeling in Tahitian King, Native Dancer clocked a final time of 1:14⅖, equaling the world record for 6½ furlongs over a straight track. Native Dancer concluded his juvenile season undefeated in nine starts with earnings of $230,495, a record for a 2-year-old. He shared Horse of the Year honors with One Count and was assigned 130 pounds atop the Experimental Free Handicap.
After spending the winter in California, Native Dancer returned to Jamaica to win the Gotham and Wood Memorial to kick off his 3-year-old campaign. The 16.2-hand, 1,200-pound Native Dancer was undefeated in 11 career starts entering the Kentucky Derby. Coupled with Social Outcast as a 2-3 favored entry, Native Dancer was bumped soundly by longshot Money Broker rounding the first turn. The Gray Ghost recovered and began to make his move on the leaders, but he came up a head short of Dark Star at the wire.
“When he lost the Kentucky Derby by a head, thousands turned from their TV screens in sorrow, a few in tears,” Time magazine reported.
The New York Times added that there “hadn’t been so much furor over a horse losing a race since Man o’ War’s defeat by Upset in the Sanford Stakes in 1919.”
Returning in the Withers Stakes, Native Dancer began another winning streak that spanned 10 races and 15 months until he was retired. After winning the Withers by four lengths, Native Dancer met up with Dark Star again in the Preakness. Dark Star took an early lead and maintained it into the stretch before fading into fifth. Native Dancer, meanwhile, was all out and held off Jamie K. for a neck victory. In the Belmont, Native Dancer again defeated Jamie K. by a neck in a time of 2:28⅗, the third-best time in the 1½-mile race’s history to that point.
Next up for Native Dancer was a victory at 1-20 odds in the Dwyer Stakes followed by a nine-length romp in the Arlington Classic and a 5½-length score in the Travers. He then won the American Derby at Washington Park by two lengths, but a foot bruise was discovered after the race, ending Native Dancer’s season. With a record of 9-1-0 from 10 starts and earnings of $513,425, Native Dancer was named champion 3-year-old male. Horse of the Year honors, however, went to Tom Fool, winner of all 10 of his starts.
Native Dancer won his 4-year-old debut in an allowance race at Belmont Park. Under 130 pounds in the Metropolitan Handicap, Native Dancer unleashed his customary late kick to make up seven lengths and defeat Straight Face by a neck. Soreness in his right foreleg kept Native Dancer on the shelf for three months before he returned to Saratoga. In what turned out to be his final start, Native Dancer carried 137 pounds to a nine-length victory in the betless, seven-furlong Oneonta Handicap. The soreness recurred in the right foreleg after the race and Vanderbilt decided to retire his champion.
Honored with the 1954 Horse of the Year title, Native Dancer retired with a record of 21-1-0 from 22 starts and earnings of $785,240. Standing stud at Sagamore, Native Dancer sired 44 stakes winners, including 1966 Kentucky Derby winner Kauai King. He also became the grandsire of Mr. Prospector and the broodmare sire of Northern Dancer. The Gray Ghost sired the dams of 84 stakes winners and linked two of America’s most important sire lined. His son, Raise a Native, sired Alydar, Exclusive Native (sire of Affirmed) and Majestic Prince (sire of Majestic Light). Native Dancer also sired Atan (sire of Sharpen Up) and Dan Cupid (sire of Sea-Bird, winner of the Epsom Derby and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe).
Native Dancer died on Nov. 16, 1967 at the age of 17.