The Belmont Stakes trophy. (Photo courtesy of Horsephotos.com)
Arthur Daley wrote in the New York Times, “When the great ones come on with an invincible rush … they blasted away with surging power that was awesome to behold. As yet, the Dancer hasn’t awed anyone.” Many times exceptional races have been ignored because there was “no standout” when in actuality, there were several standout horses competing against each other to produce tight finishes. However, when a horse pulls away from a lower-quality field, it is regarded as a brilliant race. During Native Dancer’s 3-year-old season there were some high-quality horses that made it difficult for him to win by such large margins.
The intensity of the 1953 Triple Crown reached its peak in the weeks between the Preakness and Belmont. Debates regarding Native Dancer’s abilities consumed the nation. Sports cartoonist Willard Mullin of the New York Telegram illustrated the debate with a sketch depicting Man o’ War, Citation, and Count Fleet in the grandstand, sitting sour-faced with arms folded. Behind them were fellow racehorses Whirlaway, War Admiral, Gallant Fox, Omaha, Colin, and Assault shouting “Prove It!” to Native Dancer, who was out jogging on the racetrack.
Trainer Bill Winfrey and owner Alfred G. Vanderbilt were never affected by the doubters. Vanderbilt wisely said to the media, “It will be an awfully long time before we know for sure. Greatness doesn’t come in a single race, or even a series of races. It comes in perspective. Sometimes you have to wait until a horse is retired before you can point a finger, politely of course, and say ‘There’s a great racehorse.’ ”
Winfrey always believed Native Dancer was worthy of his champion status. He began to change the Dancer’s workout strategy once again – this time, to fit the Belmont Stakes. His workouts consisted of long distances; his shortest was a six-furlong gallop the day before the big race. Every other workout was one mile or longer. The Dancer’s longest workout was 1 ½ miles – the Belmont Stakes distance.
It was clear Jamie K. and Eddie Arcaro would be Native Dancer’s toughest rival. Arcaro was determined to defeat the “Grey Ghost,” as he had been one of the colt’s strongest critics. Jamie K., second in the Preakness Stakes, had one start before the Belmont Stakes. He finished a gaining second to a 5-year-old in an allowance race. Arcaro was convinced Jamie K. was the best horse in the Belmont.
“Native Dancer will know he has been to the races,” Arcaro said prior to the Belmont Stakes.
Winfrey became concerned when the entries for the race were announced. The Belmont had a huge lack of pace, making it more difficult for a come-from-behind horse such as the Dancer to win. Uncertainty plagued Winfrey.
Overnight rains dampened the mood on Belmont Stakes day. Longshot Bassino was scratched due to the unfriendly weather. Not wanting to weather the chilly breeze sweeping underneath the grandstand, many spectators chose to watch the race on their television.
The weather still could not deter the 38,000 onlookers who came to watch the moment of truth for Native Dancer. Wagering for the Belmont Stakes was limited to win and place betting, because the track officials feared the use of their minus pool. Native Dancer reached remarkably low odds of 9-20, and Jamie K. was given his fair share of respect at odds of 5-2. Royal Bay Gem, who was third in the Preakness and fourth in the Derby went off at 6-1, and Ram o’ War, fourth in the Preakness, reached 32-1. Kamehameha, a Polynesian colt, was sent off at odds of 24-1, and The Preem was 122-1. Dark Star didn’t race because he had suffered a career-ending injury in the Preakness. By the 4:46 p.m. post time the track was rated ‘fast.’
Nine million households turned their attention to Native Dancer loading into the fifth gate, outside Jamie K. and his jockey, who attempted to keep the Grey Ghost’s name from gracing the record books alongside the likes of Citation. In minutes, the Triple Crown saga would be over, and Native Dancer’s fate would be sealed.
Breaking from the gates in the Belmont Stakes, the Dancer was eager to take the lead, being the fastest from the start. However, jockey Eric Guerin was quick to pull him back into fourth behind Ram o’ War, Kamehameha, and Jamie K. as they passed the grandstand for the first time.
Kamehameha was exhausted early in the race, and abruptly withdrew from contention. Down the backstretch, the other horses remained in the same position, making a slow pace of :25 for the opening quarter, and :50 ½ for the first half-mile. Winfrey’s fear was being realized before his eyes. Native Dancer would have to overcome the dreadfully sluggish pace in order to win the Belmont.
Arcaro blamed himself for Jamie K.’s loss in the Preakness Stakes, believing he moved too late in the race. As the horses ran around the sweeping final turn of the Belmont Stakes, Arcaro, not making the same mistake twice, sensed it was time for his horse to run, and commenced his run for the lead. Jamie K. was up for the task – he surged past the pacemaker to assert his dominance. Arcaro would have the race play as he wanted, with Native Dancer pursuing him down the homestretch.
Shortly after Jamie K. made his bid for the lead, Guerin asked the Dancer for his best effort. Native Dancer blew by Ram o’ War as he entered the homestretch. Driving against the chilling rain, Native Dancer trailed Jamie K. by less than one length. Pushing through the fog clouds of his breath, he was moving so quickly on the track surface that his silvery legs were a blur. Jamie K. was only clinging to the lead and still running hard under strong urging from Arcaro. The two rival jockeys implored their mounts, but Native Dancer was shortening the margin, and by the final furlong he had the edge on Jamie K.
At the sixteenth pole, Native Dancer let up slightly, giving Jamie K. the chance to close on the big grey. Feeling the challenge, Native Dancer was recharged nearing the wire. He increased his lead to a neck, granting jockey Eddie Arcaro his wish of knowing “he has been to the races” but without the outcome he desired.
When his distinctive grey head crossed the wire first, he was only two-fifths of a second off the track record set by Count Fleet exactly ten years to the date, and had equaled Citation’s time for the Belmont Stakes. Native Dancer proved his greatness with a final quarter of :24 4/5, and a final half-mile of :49 2/5, an amazing feat.
In the winner’s circle, Winfrey told CBS’s Red Smith, “He doesn’t waste any effort - that lazy so-and-so. He just does what he has to do to win, but he does it. There was never any doubt with me that he was a champion, but he surely proved himself to the others today.”
VANDERBILT LEADS NATIVE DANCER INTO BELMONT WINNER’S CIRCLE
Photo courtesy of Horsephotos.com
As the connections celebrated in the Belmont Park winner’s circle, Arcaro was suffering his eighth loss to the Dancer. Arcaro said, “And if we were to have gone all the way around the track again, Native Dancer still wasn’t going to let me get past him.”