I’m sure that when Native Dancer was at stud, he often woke up in a cold sweat after dreaming about Dark Star.
Dark Star was the only horse ever to beat Native Dancer; it just happened to be in the Kentucky Derby.
Nicknamed “The Gray Ghost,” Native Dancer won all 9 of his races as a 2-year-old in 1952, earning him Horse of the Year honors. He won the Gotham Mile and Wood Memorial leading up to the 1953 Derby, and bettors made him the odds-on favorite to win.
However, luck was not with him. Running slowly in sixth place at the start, he was fouled twice by two horses at the same time -once from the side, once in front of him – forcing jockey Eric Guerin to check him hard and go around the horses. He faded to eighth place, 10 lengths back.
Meanwhile, 25-1 long shot Dark Star was setting a slow pace at the front and keeping a 1 1/2 length lead over Correspondent. The Dancer made a move up to fourth but was still 2 1/2 lengths off the lead.
He continued inching his way up to Dark Star and was still 1 1/2 lengths behind at the eighth pole. He then made his late trademark run at Dark Star, who was tiring. But there was not enough room; Dark Star went under the wire a head in front.
Native Dancer would never lose again.
He started a new winning streak by taking the Withers by four lengths. He then exacted revenge in the Preakness, waiting patiently while Dark Star set a torrid pace. This time it was long shot Jamie K., ridden by Eddie Arcaro, who raced down the homestretch with the Dancer, and the gray colt won by a neck. Dark Star finished fifth.
The Belmont was an exact copy of the Preakness. With Dark Star sitting out the Belmont, Ram O’ War set the pace while Jamie K. and The Dancer overtook him at the quarter pole and ran as a tandem. Again, the Dancer won by a neck.
Native Dancer would go on to win four more races that year, earning him 3-year-old Horse of the Year honors. He raced only three times in 1954 because of a leg injury and was eventually retired, but those three wins were enough for him to win Horse of the Year. He retired with 21 victories and that one lone second in 22 starts.
At stud, Native Dancer was even more impressive, siring 43 stakes winners including Derby and Preakness champion Kauai King Dancer’s Image (who won the 1968 Derby but was disqualified) and Raise a Native, and was the damsire of Derby and Preakness winner Northern Dancer and champion filly Ruffian.
The Dancer captured the hearts of Americans because he was the first horse to be featured prominently on television. According to Time magazine, when he lost the Kentucky Derby, “thousands turned from their TV screens in sorrow, a few in tears.” In the Blood-Horse‘s survey of the Top 100 horses of the 20th century, he ranked seventh. He should have been higher.