Native Dancer

Native Dancer (March 27 1950 - November 16 1967), nicknamed the Gray Ghost, was one of the most celebrated and accomplished thoroughbred racehorses in history, the first horse made famous through the medium of television.

Born at Scott Farm near Lexington, Kentucky, the gray colt was raised and trained at owner Alfred G. Vanderbilt II's Sagamore Farm in Glyndon, Maryland. A son of 1945 Preakness Stakes winner Polynesian out of the mare Geisha, in his first season of racing Native Dancer won all nine races he entered, thrilling crowds with his come-from-behind running style. He was voted the Eclipse Award as Champion 2-year-old for 1952 with two of the three major polls naming him Horse of the Year.

In his three-year-old campaign, the undefeated racehorse received a great deal of media attention leading up to the 1953 Kentucky Derby. He won both the Gotham Mile and the prestigious Wood Memorial en route to racing's most prestigious event but at the Derby, Native Dancer lost for the first time. Although jockey Eric Guerin was roundly criticised in the press, the horse had in fact been fouled twice during the race but recovered to barely lose to Dark Star.

Following his loss at Churchill Downs, Native Dancer quickly reestablished himself as one of the best horses in America. He won the Preakness Stakes, the Belmont Stakes and the Travers Stakes a feat accomplished until then only by Duke of Magenta, Man o' War, and Whirlaway, and by only two other horses since. Native Dancer never lost again that season and was named Champion Three Year Old Colt.

In 1954 Native Dancer won all three races he entered and was scheduled to be shipped to France to compete in the prestigious Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. However, he had to be retired as a result of a recurring foot injury with a record of 21 wins out of 22 lifetime races. Voted the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year for 1954, he appeared on the May 31 cover of Time magazine.

As a sire

At stud, Native Dancer was a highly successful sire, and is an ancestor of countless modern champions. One of his daughters, a mare named Natalma, produced the great Northern Dancer. His tail-male descendants, particularly through his grandson Mr. Prospector, have come to dominate many U.S. Triple Crown races.

Among Native Dancer's offspring are:

Native Dancer is also the grandsire of Sea Bird II, considered by many racing experts to be one of the best post-war European racehorses whose wins include the 1965 Epsom Derby and Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and who earned the highest Timeform rating in history.

Native Dancer was inducted in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1963 and on November 16 1967 he died and was buried at Sagamore Farm in Glyndon, Maryland.

In the Blood-Horse magazine ranking of the top 100 U.S. thoroughbred champions of the 20th century, Native Dancer was ranked #7.

Overbreeding controversy

The euthanizing of Eight Belles after the running of the 2008 Kentucky Derby has led to the re-examination of the problem of overbreeding. It is estimated that 75% of all U.S. thoroughbreds have Native Dancer as a common ancestor. The last 14 Derby winners, and every horse in the Kentucky Derby in 2008, were descended from Native Dancer. Eight Belles was the most related, having 3 grandparents from Native Dancer. Because Native Dancer was such a prolific sire, one must also consider that he has an disproportionately high percentage of progeny racing in the upper level with more publicized races.

One theory suggests that inbreeding, rather than accepted or unaccepted training practices and racing traditions is the primary cause of breakdowns. In the racing industry, particularly at the highest levels where breeding rights cost upwards of $100,000 and entry fees ($10,000 or more per race) begin when a horse is still a small colt, "sound" legs are a major concern. Great care is given to the ratio of a horse's body to the relatively small bones in its lower legs and ankles, which are the source of many fatal injuries. Therefore, the effects of inbreeding are studied closely by the industry. Breeding and birthing strong, healthy, successful horses which can in turn become sires and dames of future such horses is a foundation of the industry.


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