When the talented Voodoo Song won four races in a single season at Saratoga last summer, his feat was widely applauded and he was recognized as the first horse since the great Native Dancer to achieve such an unprecedented accomplishment.
Of course, such comparisons aren’t completely fair to Native Dancer. Nowadays, the Saratoga meet is considerably longer and more opportunities exist for horses to win races at the historic track. When Native Dancer accomplished his streak of success in 1952, he had to pack his four starts into the span of just 27 days!
Maybe that’s one of the reasons why Native Dancer is so renowned to this day. When he arrived at Saratoga for the 1952 meet, he was a promising 2-year-old with a bright future, having won his first two starts at the old Jamaica track (including the Youthful Stakes) by a combined 10 ½ lengths. Owned by Alfred G. Vanderbilt II and trained by William Winfrey, Native Dancer was already establishing a running style that he would retain for the rest of his career. Far from being a speed demon, Native Dancer preferred to settle a few lengths behind the leaders, then roll past with authority in the homestretch to prevail time and time again.
When the 1952 Saratoga meet opened for business on Aug. 4, Native Dancer didn’t waste a moment getting to the races. He showed up on opening day for the Flash Stakes, with the crowd of nearly 16,000 establishing him as the clear favorite to win at odds of 4-5. Sure, Native Dancer was making his first start in more than three months—shin issues had kept him away from the races in late spring and early summer—but that hardly mattered. With regular rider Eric Guerin in the saddle, Native Dancer settled in third place early on before unleashing his powerful rally.
“[Native Dancer] was forced to go wide as he went to the front on the last turn, but easily defeated Greentree stable’s Tiger Skin by two-and-a-quarter lengths,” wrote the Aug. 5, 1952, edition of the Hartford Courant. “… The winner was timed in a lazy 1:06 under 122 pounds but would have bettered that clocking had he been pressed in the final going.”
Twelve days later, the “Grey Ghost” (as he would eventually be known) got his first taste of a sloppy track in the Saratoga Special Stakes. Despite the unforgiving conditions, more than 22,000 fans braved the weather and were treated to another impressive show as Native Dancer “proved he was a good ‘mudlark’ when he chalked up the fourth straight victory of his young career,” wrote the Aug. 17 edition of the Hartford Courant. “Held back in fourth place until the final bend, Native Dancer dashed up quickly to grab the lead about a furlong from home.” His margin of victory? An easy 3 ½ lengths.
“He just toyed with them, and could have done anything,” Guerin told writer Dana Mozley in the Aug. 17 edition of the New York Daily News.
Not surprisingly, Native Dancer’s weight assignment crept up and his post-time odds dropped when he turned out for the Grand Union Hotel Stakes on Aug. 23, one week after the Saratoga Special. The crowd was bigger too—the 26,232 in attendance established a record for the time—and they weren’t scared by Native Dancer’s 126-pound assignment, betting him down to heavy favoritism at 11-20.
Per usual, the result was never seriously in doubt. Facing just five rivals, Native Dancer struck the front sooner than usual and ultimately won by 3 ½ length. “If a horse can laugh, Native Dancer was laughing,” wrote Mozley in the Aug. 24 Daily News. “He stayed right with a tightly bunched pack all around the turn and then took charge from the inside as they straightened out in the stretch. Jock Eric Guerin hit him once, about the eighth pole, and he just broke away like a quarter-horse leaving the gate.
“… Native Dancer not only proved for certain today that he’s the best 2-year-old in the East, but he looked exceptional enough to be made the ‘Summer Book’ favorite for the 1953 Kentucky Derby.”
The grand finale came on Aug. 30, the final day of the meet. Native Dancer’s three previous tests, though significant races in their own right, were merely warm-ups for the $62,000 Hopeful Stakes, which carried a purse more than three times greater than the Grand Union Hotel Stakes. The historic race was the ultimate prize of the meet for 2-year-olds, and to secure the victory, Native Dancer would have to beat six rivals while sprinting 6 ½ furlongs, the longest race of his career.
From every perspective, the race should have been a challenge. Native Dancer fell farther off the early pace than usual, and that pace was quite slow—:23 3/5 for the opening quarter-mile and :48 flat for the half-mile. Then he had to circle the field on the outside, which became problematic when Tiger Skin—out in front and flying to the finish line—started drifting outward.
But although Native Dancer had to exert himself a little more than usual, once he got in the clear and lengthened his stride, he quickly reached even terms with Tiger Skin, who “held his own for about two strides at the furlong marker and then just had to concede,” wrote Mozley in the Aug. 31 Daily News before adding that Guerin “likes to compare the Dancer to a high-powered automobile—because he can move, take up and move again at any stage in a race …”
Thus, from Aug. 4 through Aug. 30, Native Dancer had won not just four races, but four prestigious stakes races during the brief Saratoga meet. Naturally, the colt was billed as a superstar; Mozley wrote “How good is the Dancer? At the moment, he appears to be as fine a 2-year-old as there’s been in the generation. He runs as well in mud as he does in the dust. He’s strong and rangy and will grow bigger, and there doesn’t seem to be anything around to really threaten him. … For him, the Kentucky Derby can’t come too soon.”
This lofty praise would prove both insightful and ironic. By the time he retired in 1954, Native Dancer had indeed proven himself to be a superhorse, with 21 victories from 22 starts. Among his most notable accomplishments were victories in the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, plus such storied prizes as the Travers Stakes and Metropolitan Handicap.
As for his lone defeat, that came by the smallest of margins in the 1953 Kentucky Derby. If not for a troubled trip, Native Dancer might well have prevailed, which would have erased the only blemish from an otherwise perfect career.
But of course, not a single blemish can be found on Native Dancer’s record at Saratoga, where he demonstrated during the summer of 1952 that he truly was a star in the making.