John Eisenberg

"Native Dancer: The Grey Ghost: Hero of a Golden Age"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple AUG 3, 2003)

Native Dancer: "racing's original pop star, the equine Elvis Presley."

In 1953, Native Dancer, a grey, 3-year-old racehorse bred and owned by Alfred Vanderbilt, captured the hearts and imagination of America and was declared "one of the three most popular figures in the country," along with Arthur Godfrey and Ed Sullivan. Winning an incredible twenty-one of his twenty-two races, he was only a few inches away from having a perfect record, losing that one race "by a nose." Horse of the Year in 1954, Native Dancer was an unprecedented choice to grace the cover of Time magazine in May, 1954, just before he retired from racing as a four-year-old.

Author John Eisenberg reports here on the horse, the stable, and all the individuals who were part of his illustrious career, explaining the circumstances which made Native Dancer the darling of the entire country, a horse seen by more race fans than any other horse in history. Though races in the past had been reported on the radio and then written up in breathless prose by local newspaper writers, Native Dancer came to prominence when middle America was first discovering the joys of television. Never before had a horse's racing career been watched live by millions. And though only one in a hundred race horses was grey, Native Dancer had the great fortune to be a grey in the early days of black and white TV, always standing out visually from the crowd of darker horses, even when he was in a pack. Sportswriter Jimmy Cannon opined that "Native Dancer probably sold as many Zeniths as Milton Berle," and Eisenberg calls him "racing's first matinee idol, his triumphs witnessed by millions on coast-to-coast TV broadcasts."

The country, according to Eisenberg, was ready for a "hero" like Native Dancer when he first began racing in 1952. World War II had been over for only a few years, and this was an era in which "institutions were to be admired, not challenged." Americans "saw their country as wealthy and invincible," and Native Dancer became a symbol of this power, "the perfect horse for the moment…It was an age of winners, and America itself was the biggest, bulging with prosperity. Native Dancer, a champion horse belonging to one of the nations's wealthiest families, fit seamlessly into [this] landscape."

Eisenberg does a masterful job of reporting here, describing Native Dancer's bloodlines, the history of Vanderbilt's stable, the biography of Alfred Vanderbilt and his family, the stories of the various stable managers and trainers, the relationship between the horse and his favorite groom, and detailed accounts of each of his important races. The Dancer always preferred to run in the middle of the pack until the race was nearly over, then, in a tremendous burst of speed he would thunder down the track, passing everything in sight to win, often by many lengths. He was so big and so powerful that when he ran, "you could draw a horizontal straight line from his airborne back feet to the tips of his forelegs," his stride measuring an incredible twenty-nine feet.

No matter how trapped in the pack he might have been in his races, Native Dancer always came through--except once, and that loss, unfortunately, was in the Kentucky Derby. Eisenberg gives this loss--by mere inches--all the drama it must have had in its day, describing in detail the bumping incident that threw him off his stride and the possible miscalculations by his jockey, Eric Guerin. Needing time to regain his balance and escape from the pack, Native Dancer had to run too far and for too long on the outside, covering much more distance than the leaders on the rail, and he ran out of time, though not energy, with his final kick. The racing world was stunned, as was Mr. Vanderbilt, and virtually everyone agreed that "the best horse lost" this race. Native Dancer won the Preakness and the Belmont in the next few weeks, but Alfred Vanderbilt had lost his best chance ever to win the Kentucky Derby, the one honor which escaped him during his long career as a breeder and owner.

Having thoroughly researched every conceivable aspect of his story, Eisenberg writes with the journalistic brio of a true lover of horse-racing, and makes the horse, his races, and the people surrounding him live again. Through newspaper accounts, photographs, step-by-step reconstructions of the races, interviews with the participants and their heirs, and personal stories by people who remember the horse and his quirks, he turns back the clock to a simpler era and recreates the spirit of the fifties when all the world looked bright. Though Native Dancer was never as lovable as Seabiscuit (and, in fact, once bit off the finger of someone he did not trust), he was a huge and positive presence, an immensely powerful racer who had a tremendous desire to win and the intelligence to know how hard he had to work to accomplish that win. In retirement he sired over a hundred foals, and many of racing's champions even now, fifty years later, can trace their lineage back to Native Dancer.

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About the Author:

John EisenbergJohn Eisenberg is an award-winning sportswriter for the Baltimore Sun. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014