Native Dancer: The Gray Champion of the ’50s

Native Dancer (1950-1967) was one of the most accomplished thoroughbred racehorses of the ’50s. He was a massive 1110 pounds, 16.3 hands tall gray monster who won all but one of the 22 races he participated in. Since his maiden race in 1952, at the Jamaican racetrack, the Vanderbilt bred and owned Dancer would go on to dominate the racecourse for three years. He was a national champion in his age group three times, was the United States Horse of the Year two times, and only lost by a head in the Kentucky Derby. Injuries would slow him down in 1954, his third season racing, and relegate him to early retirement. However, he went on to have a prolific career as a stud and is a major sire to most modern-day thoroughbreds. The Gray Ghost was an outstanding horse, and his statue at Centennial Park in Saratoga Springs and spot in the U.S. Racing Hall of Fame reminds everyone of one of horseracing finest.

Native Dancer’s Profile

  • Place of birth: Scott Farm: Lexington, Kentucky

  • Date of birth: March 27, 1950

  • Age of death: November 16, 1967

  • Sex: Stallion

  • Owner: Alfred G. Vanderbilt II

  • Trainer: William C. Winfrey

  • Sire: Polynesian

  • Dam: Geisha

  • Jockey: Eric Guerin

  • Record: 22: 21-1

  • Career earnings: $785,240, according to Equibase.

Native Dancer's Achievements

The Gray Ghost’s first season racing as a two-year-old was punctuated by his impressive 9-0 unbeaten streak. From his debut at the Jamaica Racetrack, which he won by four and a half lengths, he would then win the Youthful, Flash, Saratoga Special, Grand Union Hotel, Hopeful, Eastview, and Futurity stakes races. Owing to his dominance at the racecourse, the Dancer won the 2-Year-Old Colt Champion and 1952s American Horse of the Year trophies.

As a 3-year-old, the Dancer would win all but one race, the 1953 Kentucky Derby which he lost by a head. He was a favorite going into the Derby, but a slow start coupled with a first turn foul and Guerin’s racing tactics would see him lose for the first and only time. Despite this blot, he was undefeated in all other Stakes races he participated in that year, was second in Horse of the Year voting, and was 1953s Champion Three-Year-old.

The Gray Ghost’s career would reach its end in 1954, just three years after his racing debut. Injuries were starting to bog him down, and despite him winning three of the races he entered, including the Metropolitan Handicap, he was retired to stud due to injury. However, he would go out with a bang and won the United States Horse of the Year voting and was American Older Male Horse Champion. In a 3-year career, the Native Dancer achieved what even quality thoroughbred horses never come close to achieving. He is an inductee of the U.S. Racing Hall of Fame (1963) and Maryland State Athletic Hall of Fame (2014), and even in his death, he remains one of the most prolific horse racing icons.

Notable Remarks

Native Dancer had a gray coat, which made him distinct from the sea of bay and chestnut thoroughbreds in the racetrack. This gray coat has been traced to the Dancer’s fourth dam in his female line, La Grisette. La Grisette’s sire, Roi Herode, a gray champion stallion, is responsible for the gray in most modern-day gray thoroughbreds.

On retirement, Native Dancer went on to become a major sire, and his genes flow in most of the present-day thoroughbreds. Some of his notable foals include Raise a Native, Dan Cupid, a 1958 Prix du Bois winner and sire of Sea-Bird; Kauai King, a 1966 Kentucky Derby winner; and Dancers Image. Some of his distant progenies include Majestic Prince, a 1966 Kentucky Derby winner; Allydar, a Triple Crown runner-up; Affirmed, a Triple Crown Winner; Genuine Risk, A Kentucky Derby winner; and Natalma, also a Kentucky Derby winner.

The Gray Ghost’s pounding style of running and massive size proved detrimental to his relatively weak feet and led to his early retirement. Because he became a major sire, some geneticists have argued that he has been responsible for passing this injury susceptibility to his progeny. While this argument is unfair, some of the Dancer’s progeny, such as Mr. Prospector, Ruffian, and Go for Ward, have had their promising careers ended by leg injuries.