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The Grey Ghost Hero of a Golden Age
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In the early 1950s, a rising star flickered across millions of black-and-white TV sets. Nicknamed “The Grey Ghost,” Native Dancer was a blueblood thoroughbred with a taste for drama, courtesy of his come-from-behind running style, and impressive credits: He finished first in 21 of his 22 career starts, his only loss by a nose in the 1953 Kentucky Derby; was named Horse of the Year—twice; and was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame. His popularity was so great, Time ® magazine put
him on its cover, and TV Guide named him one of America’s top three TV stars, along with Ed Sullivan and Arthur Godfrey. Legend says his ghost haunts Churchill Downs. Set against the nostalgic events of an America long past, NATIVE DANCER is the definitive account of one of the greatest champions of horse racing’s golden age.
OTHER BOOKS BY JOHN EISENBERG
The Longest Shot:
Lil E. Tee and the Kentucky Derby
Cotton Bowl Days:
Growing Up wih Dallas and the Cowboys in the 1960s
From 33rd Street to Camden Yards:
An Oral History of the Baltimore Orioles
Copyright © 2003 by John Eisenberg
All rights reserved.
Warner Books, Inc.
Hachette Book Group
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First eBook Edition: May 2003
This book could not have been written without the recollections of various trainers, jockeys, farm owners, racing officials, fans, exercise riders, veterinarians, relatives of the principal figures, and members of the racing media. A list of those quoted in the text:
Appley, Claude "Apples"—longtime Vanderbilt employee who worked as farmhand, groom, exercise rider, and stable manager beginning in 1933; wife Mary also is quoted.
Atkinson, Ted—Hall of Fame jockey who rode for Greentree Stable; won 3,795 races in a twenty-one-year career.
Boniface, William—Baltimore Sun racing writer from 1948 to 1981.
Capps, Tim—Maryland-based author, historian, and racing executive who has worked for the Jockey Club, Maryland Horse Breeders' Association, and Maryland Jockey Club.
Caras, Costy—son of Jamaica, New York, restaurant owner and protÉgÉ of New York track announcer Fred Caposella; was longtime track announcer at Charles Town track in West Virginia; began career working for Daily Racing Form.
Curry, Frank—nephew of Eric Guerin.
Derr, John—longtime CBS radio and TV sports commentator and executive.
Deubler, Judy Ohl—young racing fan in the 1950s.
Dorfman, Leonard—longtime trainer who has worked the back-stretch of California tracks since the 1930s.
Florio, Clem—New York-area boxer and horseplayer in the 1940s and 1950s; later, racing journalist and track oddsmaker in Maryland.
Gilcoyne, Tom—historian at National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame in Saratoga; has followed the sport since the 1920s.
Harthill, Alex—Churchill Downs-based veterinarian for a half century.
Jerkens, Allen—New York-based trainer elected to Hall of Fame in 1975.
Kelly, Joe—longtime racing writer in Maryland; was vice president of Maryland Horseman's Association in the early 1950s.
Kercheval, Ralph—former college and pro football star; managed Sagamore Farm from 1948 to 1958; his wife, Blanche, is also quoted.
Koppett, Leonard—author and sportswriter in New York and San Francisco Bay Area since the 1940s.
Leblanc, Charles Ray—Eric Guerin's first cousin; was jockey and later steward in Illinois and New Orleans.
Passmore, Billy—young jockey in early 1950s; became steward in Maryland.
Pate, Lulu Vanderbilt—daughter of Alfred Vanderbilt's brother, George.
Pedersen, Pete—veteran racing official; has worked as steward, race-caller, steward's aide, newspaper handicapper, paddock judge, placing judge, and patrol judge at West Coast tracks.
Prince, Harold—Tony Award-winning theater producer-director known for successful musicals.
Roberts, Tommy—TV broadcaster and executive who has worked on many racing ventures since the 1950s.
Robinson, Jack—longtime veterinarian in California.
Roche, Clyde—Alfred Vanderbilt's oldest lifelong friend.
Scott, Daniel W.—owner of Kentucky farm where Native Dancer was foaled in 1950.
Scott, Daniel W., III—son of Kentucky farm owner.
Sharp, Bayard—du Pont family heir and Vanderbilt friend who backed a racing stable and owned a horse farm in Delaware.
Shoemaker, Bill—Hall of Fame jockey; began career in California in 1949 and won 8,833 races.
Tannenbaum, Joe—racing writer at Miami Daily News in the 1950s, then longtime director of publicity at Gulfstream Park.
Trotter, Tommy—respected racing official; has held many posts throughout the country since the 1940s.
Vanderbilt, Alfred, III—eldest son of Native Dancer's owner; mother is Jeanne; rode horses as a child and still rides for pleasure; took up writing and music and has had a long career in public relations.
Vanderbilt, Heidi—daughter of Alfred and Jeanne Vanderbilt; rode show horses as a child; owns horse farm today.
Vanderbilt, Jeanne—Alfred Vanderbilt's second wife, married to him from 1946 to 1956; resides in Paris today.
Winfrey, Carey—Bill Winfrey's eldest son; editor in chief of Smithsonian magazine today.
Winfrey, Elaine—Bill Winfrey's second wife, married to him from 1952 until his death in 1994.
The train pulled into Cincinnati's Union Station early one morning in late April 1953. No passengers got on, no passengers got off, no one even paid attention until a station mechanic on a routine check idly slid open a car door and stepped back in amazement at the scene he had uncovered. A muscular grey horse stood on a bed of straw in the far corner of the car, next to a black man wearing a hat.
"Is that… is that the Grey Ghost himself?" the mechanic stammered.
"It sure enough is," the black man replied with a smile.
The mechanic opened his mouth without emitting a sound, stunned at his discovery. Then he began to shout: "Hey, everyone, over here! You can't miss this!"
Within moments a mob of commuters, laborers, and onlookers had gathered on the platform, straining for a glimpse of the train's famous passenger—a celebrity who would be hailed by TV Guide at the end of 1953 as one of America's three most popular figures, along with entertainer Arthur Godfrey and host Ed Sullivan. His stopover in Cincinnati, lasting all of five minutes, was deemed newsworthy enough for a story in the local paper the next day. Fathers eating breakfast read the story and said to their families, "I wish I'd missed my train and gotten stuck at the station."
It was an epic time for mythmaking in America. In the aftermath of a depression and war, at the dawn of the television age, the country was moving to the suburbs and learning to commune over heroes hatched in living rooms on flickering, black-and-white TV sets. Out of the mists of the early 1950s rose a star as bright as any, a thoroughbred champion with blue-blood roots, a knack for drama, and a name that would gain a permanent place in the nation's vocabulary: Native Dancer.
Bred, owned, and championed by Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, the sporting scion of one of the country's most celebrated families, Native Dancer would finish first in twenty-one of twenty-two races in his career (the one loss was by a nose), securing a place among horse racing's legends. Although his story was suffused with the sweet whiff of the underdog—his canny young trainer, Bill Winfrey, was raised on the dust and straw of Depression-era racing, and his jockey, Eric Guerin, was a blacksmith's son raised poor in Louisiana's rural backwaters—at its essence, Native Dancer's reign was about power, glory, and class at the pinnacle of American society. He was a product of rarefied lineage and the finest farms and barns, blessed with physical and mental endowments his bloodlines couldn't explain, an odds-on favorite every time he raced. At a time when Americans saw their country as wealthy and invincible, Vanderbilt and his horse constituted a national self-portrait.
The horse's brief stop in Cincinnati was on the last leg of his trek from New York, where he was stabled, to Louisville's Churchill Downs, where he would run for racing's ultimate glory in the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May 1953. The nation was waiting for what it foresaw as a coronation, captivated by the colt's undefeated record and agonizing habit of seemingly waiting too long before making his move. Prior racing legends such as Man O' War and Seabiscuit had inspired public fervor, and the soaring arc of Native Dancer's renown was similar and even higher in some ways. He was racing's first matinee idol, his triumphs witnessed by millions on coast-to-coast TV broadcasts. His popularity was evidence of the growing power of the new medium; New York sportswriter Jimmy Cannon would later write that "Native Dancer probably sold as many Zeniths as Milton Berle."
His appeal was as simple as the times. Television cast a black-and-white picture. Native Dancer's coat was grey. Anyone could pick him out and cheer him down the stretch as he sprinted with his head slung low, veering through traffic until he was alone in front. And cheer him they did: in bars, airports, train stations, living rooms, department stores—anywhere that people gathered and gawked in front of TV sets, still awestruck by the ability to see what they previously had only been able to hear.
The sight of Vanderbilt leading his horse into the winner's circle became a Saturday afternoon TV staple and turned Native Dancer into a star without peer. Thousands of fans crowded around the walking rings and saddling stalls before he raced, anxious just to glimpse the granite monster weighing more than 1,200 pounds, yet possessing a burst of acceleration and a finishing kick that left hardened horsemen groping for adjectives. "He was in the company of the gods, inspiring a reverence felt only for other immortals such as Babe Ruth and Jim Thorpe," racing author Bernard Livingston wrote years later. "It became routine for bettors not to cash their winning tickets, instead pocketing them as souvenirs. A small piece of Native Dancer was more important than any monies won."
America in 1953 was a cocky sprawl just beginning an unwitting transition from the unified glory of World War II to the splintered days of Vietnam and the sixties. The cold war with the Soviet Union was escalating as American soldiers fought grimly in Korea and bomb shelters were erected across America amid growing concern that communists had infiltrated the country's political and cultural institutions. Seeking to soothe their jangled nerves, Americans had elected Dwight Eisenhower, a paternal army general, as their president It was the last decade without cynicism, with lives slower, choices fewer, and joys less complicated than what lay ahead. Racing was the playground of the thrill seekers. The sport was in a gritty golden age, perched atop the nation's sports scene. Every week 700,000 people spent at least a day at one of the country's 130 tracks.
Native Dancer was the perfect horse for the moment. Before the din and anarchy of the sixties, symbols of power were still beloved and embraced; institutions were to be admired, not challenged. The sports world was brimming with them. Baseball's New York Yankees were in the midst of a run of five straight World Series titles. Notre Dame's football team was a constant in the top five of the college polls. Calumet Farm, racing's dominant stable, had won the Kentucky Derby five times since 1941. Golfer Ben Hogan had come back from a crippling car crash to win a string of major championships. It was an age of winners, and America itself was the biggest, bulging with prosperity. Native Dancer, a champion horse belonging to one of the nation's wealthiest families, fit seamlessly into the landscape.
A half century later, he was judged one of the greatest horses of the twentieth century by several panels of experts. But judging him solely on his record and winning times misses the essence of his career. He was racing's original pop star, the equine Elvis Presley, an iconic marker of an easier but unsettled time and place. When American racing was at its best in the early 1950s, its best was an indelibly charismatic horse known as the Grey Ghost. "It was a good time to be alive and a great time to be a racing fan," said Joe Hirsch, the longtime Daily Racing Form columnist. "When Native Dancer came along, he was more than just a horse. He was a happening."
He 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 46⅖ 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. LÉger, 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.
- On Sale
- May 1, 2003
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Grand Central Publishing