How ironic that Native Dancer, the first thoroughbred to capture a public following on television, is being cast as a villain in some quarters, following the breakdown of Eight Belles in the widely televised Kentucky Derby.

The theory possibly started with an article by Jon Weinbach in the May 2, 2008 issue of the Wall Street Journal, where he pointed out that all 20 horses in this year’s Kentucky Derby were descended from Native Dancer. From that platform, Weinbach concludes: “Like hemophilia in the Russian royal family, Native Dancer’s line has a fatal flaw. Thanks in part to heavily muscled legs and a violent, herky jerky running style, Native Dancer and his descendants have had trouble with their feet.”

Native Dancer appears once, in the seventh generation, on the top side of Eight Belles’ pedigree, and in the fifth and sixth generations on the bottom side. In her seven generation pedigree of 254 ancestors, Native Dancer appears four times, no closer than as her maternal great-grandsire’s dam’s sire. I wonder if Mr. Weinbach knows any more about the Russian royal family or genetics than he does about racehorses?

In his New York Times column “The Rail,” writer Joe Drape, who does know racehorses, included a short piece written by Alfred Vanderbilt, whose father bred Native Dancer. Vanderbilt corrects Weinbach on some points, but mostly reminisces about the Gray Ghost.

Facts about Native Dancer:

  • He was bred by Alfred G. Vanderbilt, sired by the 1945 Preakness winner Polynesian, and foaled in 1950 out of Geisha, by Discovery.
  • He broke his maiden in his debut at 2.
  • He won 21 of 22 starts during his three-year career, including the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes.
  • He suffered his only defeat, by a nose, to Dark Star in the Kentucky Derby.
  • He was honored as Horse of the Year in 1952 and 1954, and Champion 3-Year-Old in 1953.
  • He was referred to as the Gray Ghost during his racing career.
  • He preferred to rate mid-pack and strike in the stretch.
  • He had a stride comparable to Man O’War’s – 28 feet.
  • He was temperamental, but loved the kittens that often played in his stall.
  • He sired 1966 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Kauai King, and 1968 Kentucky Derby winner Dancer’s Image.
  • His son Raise A Native sired Mr. Prospector, Alydar, Exclusive Native, and Majestic Prince, all influential sires. Another son, Dan Cupid, sired European champion Sea Bird II
  • His daughter Natalma produced the great sire Northern Dancer.