‘Grey Ghost’ was prolific sire, winner
The first equine television star was the boldly handsome Native Dancer, known as the “Grey Ghost.”
Foaled in 1950 in Kentucky, he was moved to Sagamore Farm in Glyndon, Maryland when he was four months old.
His owner was the redoubtable Alfred Gwynn Vanderbilt, who gave over Native Dancer’s training to William C. Winfrey.
As a well-proportioned two-year-old, Native Dancer went “to the races” in 1952, just when television was seeing the advantages of showing stakes races and possible rising stars on its Saturday network shows.
Vanderbilt was an icon not only in racing circles but in high society and Forbes 500 business ramblings. Any well-bred and photogenic thoroughbred of his had star possibilities.
So when Native Dancer started winning every race he entered the television people took notice.
His fame was growing as fast as his on-track winning streak. “The Dancer” raced nine times a two-year-old. And he won nine times.
His frame could have been sculpted by Michelangelo or Leonardo, so classic was his head and his muscular body.
Voted American Champion Two-Year-Old by unanimous vote and given Horse of the Year honors in two polls, the followers of thoroughbred racing looked longingly to the 1953 Kentucky Derby and the start of that year’s Triple Crown series. So did the moguls of television as they stared often at their ratings.
On Derby Day in 1953, Native Dancer was still unbeaten, having last won the Wood Memorial in New York.
But he ran erratically in the Derby, getting bumped twice as he moved after the eventual winner Dark Star.
That second-place finish would be the only time he didn’t get to visit the sometimes raucous celebrations in the winner’s circle.
As a three-year-old, he went on to win both the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. The Travers was his … and he was voted the Champion Three-Year-Old in 1953.
Then solid as a chiseled block of granite and becoming more grey all the time, Native Dancer was becoming as well-known as Mickey Mantle, any boxing champion or the Chicago Football Bears of Coach George Halas.
He was going to race again at age four. After winning his first three races of 1954, he was being prepped for a trip to France for the world-famous Arc d’ Triomphe.
But a recurring foot ailment meant cancelling those plans … and brought a sudden retirement for the Squire of Sagamore.
Native Dancer had won 21 of his 22 career starts. When he was being readied to go abroad to France, his photograph appeared on the front of Time magazine.
It was as a stallion that Native Dancer was once more at his best.
Almost snow-white and with the robust chest of a weight lifter and regal head of a matinee idol, Native Dancer and his progeny began producing all-time results.
Dan Cupid was his son and Dan Cupid fathered Sea Bird, the best horse Europe had ever seen. Raise a Native was his son and Raise a Native fathered Mr. Prospector. Native Dancer’s granddaughter was Natalma, and she had Northern Dancer, maybe the most productive sire in racing history.
There was his daughter, Shenanigans, the mother of Ruffian, the coal-black jet who had never lost a race until shattering a leg in a match race in July of 1975.
He was voted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1963 … to be followed by a slew of his sons, daughters and grandchildren.
A television star. The winner of 21 out of 22 races. The sire of many all-time, winning thoroughbreds.
Native Dancer carried the cerise silks of Alfred G. Vanderbilt. The white stars dotting those silks could have been in honor of the white Native Dancer in years to come.
Numerous polls that have ranked thoroughbreds through history have placed only Secretariat and Man o’ War ahead of the “Grey Ghost.”