TWO FOR THE PRICE OF ONEBy: Ron Hale
For a number of years now, we have been in an era of disposable Thoroughbred heroes. Over the past weekend, Daily Racing Form's Ed Fountaine referred to them as "30-day wonders." A year ago, a horse comes along and gallops in his first lifetime start and suddenly Daily Racing Form is running a regular column tracking his every movement on the road to Kentucky. Oblivion follows shortly. More recently, a horse looks good in beating mundane fields at two third-rate racetracks -- Bay Meadows and Turfway Park -- and Daily Racing Form columnists are talking Kentucky Derby favoritism and suggesting that the Triple Crown trophy be taken out and polished. Oblivion is just around the corner.
With that in mind, it may be hard for newer devotees of the sport to comprehend the fact that 45 years ago, a three-year-old who:
- was coming off a juvenile season that saw him score 9 wins in 9 starts,
- was voted Horse of the Year as a two-year-old in two of the three major polls,
- won 9 of 10 starts in his sophomore year,
- won the Gotham Stakes, Wood Memorial Stakes, Withers, Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes, Dwyer Stakes, Travers Stakes, Arlington Classic and American Derby,
- had his name become a household word,
- had every one of his stakes races covered nationally by the CBS televison network and
- had his every move followed by sportswriters across the country,
Such was the quality of two Thoroughbreds who totally dominated Thoroughbred racing in 1953 in a way that is rarely seen.
Native Dancer, the big gray from Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt's Sagamore Farm, and Tom Fool, the bay son of Menow owned by the Greentree Stable of John Hay Whitney and Mrs. Charles S. Payson, put on an exhibition of Thoroughbred racing at its zenith. The only sad part of the story of 1953 was the two never met on the racetrack. The planned "Race of the Century" was scheduled for the end of September, but Native Dancer reinjured himself and had to be turned out for the year. Like Native Dancer, Tom Fool was a champion juvenile and Experimental Free Handicap highweight. He won five of his seven starts at two. Pointing for the spring classics in 1952, Tom Fool ran second in the Wood Memorial, after which it was discovered that he had a fever and cough. He was sidelined for nine weeks, missing the Triple Crown series. When the year was over, he had won six of his 13 starts, finished second five times and third once.
He closed out his sophomore season in sensational fashion, hinting that he might just be a monster at age four in 1953. He did not disappoint.
In 1953, Tom Fool started 10 times and won all 10. He won at 5-1/2 furlongs, 6 furlongs, 7 furlongs, 1 mile, 1 3/16 miles and 1 1/4 miles. He won with 136 pounds, 135 pounds, 130 pounds twice and 128 pounds twice.
Tom Fool returned to the races in April. His trainer, John Garver, chose the Sation Handicap, a 5-1/2 furlong overnight race at Jamaica Race Course as his initial race. Tom Fool won easily under 128 pounds.
His next start was the Joe Palmer Handicap at Belmont Park, a six-furlong test. Under regular rider, Ted Atkinson ("The Slasher"), Tom Fool won by 1 3/4 lengths under 130 pounds.
The Palmer was run on Tuesday. Five days later, on Saturday, Tom Fool began his quest for the New York Handicap Triple Crown. In the Metropolitan Handicap, he scored by a half-length under 130 pounds.
A week later, on Memorial Day (in the era before Monday holidays), Tom Fool met the best field of his life in the Suburban Handicap. The post-time odds tell the story: Tom Fool: 2.05-to-1; Royal Vale, 2.20-to-1; and the entry of One Count and Kiss Me Kate, 2.30-to-1. Tom Fool was all out to defeat Royal Vale, who was ridden by the ill-fated Jackie Westrope, by a nose. Excluding the generally discredited 1 1/4 record of 2:00 set by Whisk Broom II in 1913, it was the fastest Suburban in the long history of the race (2:00 3/5).
Before the Brooklyn Handicap, the final leg of the handicap triple, Tom Fool picked up 135 pounds and won the Carter Handicap at seven furlongs. Despite carrying 136 pounds in the Brooklyn, Tom Fool was challenged by only four horses -- the next highest weight being 110 pounds. The Greentree ace won eased up and became only the second horse in history, and the first in 40 years, to win the New York Handicap Triple Crown (Whisk Broom II was the first).
By late summer, Tom Fool had reached the weight-for-age events and no one wanted to challenge him. His final four races of the year, and his career, were essentially walkovers. All were betless exhibition races. He won the Wilson Stakes and Whitney Stakes at Saratoga; the Sysonby Stakes at Belmont Park; and the Pimlico Special.
The Sysonby was to have been the much anticipated meeting with Native Dancer. The Westchester Racing Assn., which operated Belmont Park at that time, raised the purse of the Sysonby from $20,000 to $50,000 and moved the date back a week to accommodate each trainer's plans. Sadly, Native Dancer reinjured himself and the great match race never took place.
Tom Fool was retired at the end of the season. As a juvenile in 1952, Native Dancer was perfect. He won all nine of his starts, including the Youthful Stakes, Hopeful Stakes, Flash Stakes, Saratoga Special Stakes, Futurity Stakes and East View Stakes. He was voted juvenile champion and was assigned highweight on the Experimental Free Handicap by handicapper John B. Campbell. Two of the three major polls voted him Horse of the Year.
Often referred to as the "Gray Ghost of Sagamore," Native Dancer wintered in California between his juvenile and sophomore seasons. He made a public appearance at Santa Anita one Saturday afternoon in January. Before 47,500 people in attendance for that day's races, the Dancer jogged three-eighths of a mile. He made his debut as a three-year-old in the Gotham Stakes at Jamaica. Under regular rider Eric Guerin, he romped home by two lengths. A week later, trainer Bill Winfrey had him cranked up even tighter for Jamaica's Wood Memorial Stakes. The gray ghost won in hand by nearly five lengths.
This set the stage for the 79th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Coupled with Social Outcast, Native Dancer went off at 7-to-10 in the run for the roses. In one of the stunning upsets of all times, Henry Moreno guided Dark Star to a wire-to-wire win, holding off the Dancer in a furious stretch run to prevail by a head.
The Derby would be the only time in 22 career starts that Native Dancer would not finish first. The rest of the year was a series of wins. First the Withers, then the Preakness. They were followed by the Belmont Stakes, Dwyer Stakes, Arlington Classic, Travers Stakes and the American Derby.
He was injured before his scheduled meeting with Tom Fool in the Sysonby Stakes at Belmont Park.
Who would have won? The consensus among racing experts of the time was that the four-year-old would have prevailed. Tom Fool would have won on seasoning, much as would be evidenced years later when other greats met at the same time: The four-year-old Seattle Slew beat the sophomore Affirmed in 1977. A year later, the four-year-old Affirmed beat the sophomore Spectacular Bid. Over time, the general consensus was that Affirmed was a better horse than Seattle Slew and Spectacular Bid was better than both of them.
Native Dancer's performances on the track were only a part of his legacy. He came along at a time when network television was looking for stars to feature on its live broadcasts. And Native Dancer filled the bill.
CBS covered every one of the Dancer's races and the goggle-eyed American public loved it. One sportswriter said, "People all across America who have never been to and will probably never go to a racetrack know the names of two Thoroughbreds -- the legendary Man o' War and the television idol, Native Dancer." Oddly, one of the things that made the Dancer most popular, in addition to his heart-pounding finishes, was his color. These were the early days of poor quality, black-and-white television. Because he appeared white and the other horses were black, Native Dancer was always easy to follow. It was a television producer's dream.
How big was Native Dancer's stature?
The legendary sports writer Red Smith noted:
"Native Dancer became the first national TV idol of his species, a frequent visitor in a million homes."Historian Joe A. Estes, writing in the 1954 volume of "American Race Horses" (The Sagamore Press, 1955), said:
"It was in keeping with his legendary status that Native Dancer got more attention, in the form of magazine articles and newspaper stories, when he was unable to run at all than most outstanding horses have received after reaching the winner's circle."Estes went on to say that because of the new medium of television, Native Dancer was a hero to more people than any number of previous champions combined. Estes concluded:
"This was significant for racing in many ways, but particularly in the fact that the sport had provided a wholly admirable figure for the admiration and affection of the masses. A generation was growing up which would not be able to remember when there was no such thing as television. There would be other heroes, in racing and in other sports, but the stout gray from Sagamore Farm would be remembered as the horse which first revealed to the millions the courage and nobility of the Thoroughbred."Native Dancer's popularity was not lost on those in racing, either. The following year -- 1954 -- the gray ghost made only three starts all year -- an allowance purse, the Metropolitan Handicap and the overnight Oneonta Handicap at Saratoga. He won all three, was reinjured and retired. Despite this incredibly brief campaign, Native Dancer was voted 1954 Horse of the Year in *every* year-end poll. And no one complained.
Tom Fool was elected to the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Racing in 1960. Three years later, Native Dancer was inducted.
Tom Fool went on to become an outstanding sire. He sired 275 foals, 36 of whom were stakes winners, including Kentucky Derby winner Tim Tam. More importantly, Tom Fool accomplished something that few *great* horses ever do -- he sired another *great* horse, one who might have been greater than himself, the mighty Buckpasser. (Of the two dozen or so horses in the 20th Century who deserve the title "great," only two others sired "greats." Man o' War was the sire of War Admiral. Bold Ruler was the sire of Secretariat.)
Native Dancer went on to become one of the most influential sires of the century. He sired 304 foals, 44 of whom were stakes winners. These included Kentucky Derby winners Kauai King and Dancer's Image (disqualified) and the brilliant sire Raise a Native. More importantly, Native Dancer was the grandsire of such horses as Northern Dancer and Sea-Bird.