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Point/Counterpoint: Native Dancer vs Spectacular Bid

Spectacular Bid and Native Dancer Point/Counterpoint
This week, step back in Derby time with New York State of Racing's Matt Shifman and Managing Editor Brian Zipse as they take on the top gray horses of all time - Native Dancer or Spectacular Bid?

Native Dancer

Spectacular Bid
New York State of Racing
Zipse At The Track

Matt Shifman:

Native Dancer was destined to be a star, part of one of racing’s royal families. Owner Alfred G. Vanderbilt bred Native Dancer at his legendary Sagamore Farm in Maryland. Native Dancer’s gray dam, Geisha, was out of Discovery, one of the most successful broodmare sires of all-time. Discovery was the foundation stallion at Sagamore. Of course Vanderbilt was part of America’s aristocracy. He was given Sagamore as a gift for his 21st birthday. He was the President of Pimlico, where he arranged the famous match race between War Admiral and Seabiscuit. He became the Chairman of NYRA in the early 1970’s.


There have been very few horses as popular as Native Dancer. He was a two year-old in 1952, which was a time when our country was moving from World War II to a period of prosperity. The suburban lifestyle was beginning to take hold and television was to be a big part of American leisure. About 50% of the households had a black and white television. Native Dancer’s gray color struck a vivid image on those early TV sets. CBS covered his races live and with each victory his stardom grew. TV Guide magazine ranked the Gray Ghost second only to Ed Sullivan as the biggest attractions on television.


It is important to remember that Native Dancer raced in an era when final times and speed figures were not a priority. The goal was to win the important races and that was exactly what the Gray Ghost did. He went undefeated in nine races as a juvenile. He swept four two year-old stakes at Saratoga winning the Flash, the Saratoga Special, and the Hopeful. In the Futurity at Belmont he equaled the track record for six and a half furlongs. 

Native Dancer spent that winter in California to rest and prepare for 1953. On a Saturday afternoon in January the Gray Ghost made an appearance at Santa Anita that attracted 47,500 people to watch him jog three eighths of a mile between races. He began his three year-old campaign with victories in the Gotham and Wood Memorial that were then run at the old Jamaica racetrack.

With a career record of 11 wins in 11 starts Native Dancer entered the Kentucky Derby with the shortest odds in Derby history. In the Derby Native Dancer broke badly and accordingly to the official Racing Form chart “…was roughed badly at the first turn…was eased back to secure running room, raced wide during the run to the upper turn, then saved ground entering the stretch and finished strongly, but could not overtake the winner, although probably the best.” The nation was stunned and regular jockey Eric Guerin was widely criticized for his ride. A popular description said that "Eric took Native Dancer everywhere on the track except the ladies' room." Of course that was to be the Sagamore runner’s only loss in 22 starts and the official margin of defeat was a head.


{Get Native Dancer's complete race record}


The significance of that bad trip was heightened when Native Dancer came right back and won the Withers, the Preakness, and the Belmont. The American idol had lost the Triple Crown by such a narrow margin.

He finished his sophomore season with wins at Arlington Park and the old Washington Park in Chicago. Between those two visits to Illinois he won the Travers at Saratoga. 1953 was supposed to end with a showdown against the older star Tom Fool, but Native Dancer bruised his left front hoof and had to stop for the year. In 1954 (a year favored by this gray haired blogger), he would win three more races including the Met Mile at Belmont. More foot problems forced an early retirement but brought Horse of the Year honors.


Clearly Native Dancer had the star power, a fine pedigree, classy connections, and a near perfect race record. What sets him apart from Spectacular Bid even more is his career as a sire. Native Dancer returned to Sagamore to become one of the most influential sires in racing history. Two of his daughters became famous broodmares. Natalma was the dam of Northern Dancer and Shenanigans was the mother of Ruffian and Icecapade. His champion son Raise A Native would be a big part of the sire line that was responsible for such star runners and stallions as: Exclusive Native, Affirmed, Genuine Risk, Alydar, Alysheba, Majestic Prince, Mr. Prospector, Conquistador Cielo, Seeking the Gold, Fappiano, Afleet, Rhythm, and Forty Niner.


Brian, there is no doubt that there are few horses that can match the brilliance of Spectacular Bid especially in his four year-old campaign. So I am willing to give The Bid the nod in that area, but Native Dancer wins in all other areas making him the best gray horse in history.


Brian Zipse:

Who was the greatest gray horse of all-time? We’ve really opened up a can of worms with this one, Matt. Native Dancer and Spectacular Bid are without question two of the finest thoroughbreds ever to step onto an American racetrack. While I am not old enough to have been around for the racing of Native Dancer, I was for Spectacular Bid. I had the pleasure of seeing him run many times in person in each of his three marvelous seasons of racing, and countless other times on television. Let’s just say I don’t think his boastful trainer, Buddy Delp was not too far off with his assessment of The Bid … For my money, Spectacular Bid, along with Secretariat, was one of the two best horses ever to look through a bridle in my lifetime.

While Native Dancer was television’s darling at the beginning of the second half of the 20th century, Spectacular Bid was the final great piece of racing’s golden era. He had to compete for notoriety with other such amazing horses of his generation, Secretariat, Ruffian, Forego, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. Through his brilliance and durability, Spectacular Bid was able to carve out a prominent spot amongst the greatest group of horses we’ve ever seen.

You better hope times are not the deciding factor in this debate, my friend, because The Bid was a record breaker every step of his spectacular career. It all began at the beginning, with him running just two-fifths of a second off the Pimlico track record for 5 1/2 furlongs in his debut. Three weeks later he equaled that track record in his second start. He did have a few growing pains early in his juvenile season which accounted for two of his four lifetime defeats, but by the time the fall rolled around he was unbeatable. This was demonstrated one night in New Jersey when he beat a quality field at Atlantic City by 15 lengths. The final time for that seven furlongs was 1:20 4/5. Can you imagine a juvenile running that time over a track rated as good? Me neither.

After dispatching the highly regarded New York juvenile star, General Assembly, a few times with disdainful ease, Spectacular Bid entered his second season on a five race win streak and the overwhelming choice as juvenile champion. By the way, I know many who still call his Laurel Futurity, in which he defeated his top 2yo foe by 8 ½ lengths while setting another track record, the most impressive juvenile race they’ve ever seen.

While Native Dancer lost the Derby by a head, and then won the Preakness and Belmont, each by a neck, Spectacular Bid positively dominated his peers. I’ll never forget the Florida Derby, in which The Bid was given a ride by the inexperienced Ronnie Franklin that makes Native Dancer’s Derby look like a perfect trip. Saying he lost ten lengths due to his rider is no exaggeration. It did not matter, The Bid still won off by 4 ½ lengths. When he entered the Kentucky Derby starting gate, he was on a ten race winning streak, and no horse, before or since has impressed me more on the Derby trail. Watching him romp in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness only reaffirmed what we all had been seeing for the previous eight months.


I’ll take your winning only two out of three photos one better in the form of a safety pin. The legend is true, or so I have been told by insiders. The Bid was hampered in the Belmont by a sore hoof. After the race the wound would become infected and so serious that they feared for the star horse’s life. Also there seemed to be little reason for Franklin to gun Spectacular Bid into a big lead on the Belmont backstretch. Franklin would never ride him again. Despite everything, Spectacular Bid would fight on to finish a game third, with the excellent and underrated horse Coastal, who was coming off a 14-length Peter Pan win, getting the win. Spectacular Bid not winning the Triple Crown can only be described as unjust.


{See Spectacular Bid's Triple Crown races}


It’s a shame Native Dancer and Tom Fool never got to race. Spectacular Bid would win 12 of his 13 races after the Belmont debacle, with only a second by ¾ of a length to the great Affirmed getting in the way of perfection. In that race, Affirmed was the more experienced older horse, which is often the deciding factor in races of the most importance, and also had the big advantage of setting a slow pace. Three-year-old Bid would keep coming, but was never able to get to his older rival. The Bid would overcome questionable handling, bad rides, sickness and injury to continuously improve to the point where I am not sure any horse could have matched the four-year-old season he compiled in 1980. Spectacular Bid dominated California racing in such a way that has never been seen. Time, weight, margin of victory, and even competition (Flying Paster), all the ways in which a race horse can be measured, were simply better than anything I’ve seen. There was a reason no one would run against him in the Woodward.


As a sire, there is no comparison. Certainly Native Dancer was one of the more influential sires in American history, while The Bid was not. If you asked me who was better as a combined sire and a race horse, I would say Native Dancer, but my argument is strictly who was the better race horse.


Native Dancer was a great horse, Matt, but let’s look at the facts that are Spectacular Bid. He won 13 grade 1 stakes at 10 different tracks, and won 23 stakes total. He carried 130 or more pounds five times, and won all five. At distances from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/4 miles, Spectacular Bid set or equaled eight Track and American records at seven different tracks, twice while carrying 130 pounds. What does it all mean? Spectacular Bid was the greatest gray of all-time.

 See where your favorites rank in HRN's Kentucky Derby 2012 Contenders!


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Older Comments about Point/Counterpoint: Native Dancer vs Spectacular Bid...

I loved the Bid saw him many times in person and also when he retired. But ND will always hold a special place in my heart. I was a kid and saw him race on TV. I sent a letter to AG Vanderbilt telling him how much I liked ND. A few weeks later I received a letter from AGVanderbilt himself inviting me and my family to see ND in person. Needless to say I was thrilled and we took him up on his offer. Vanderbilt himself showed us around. When ND died in1968 I remember sending a card to him with my condolences. Vanderbilt was a class act as was his great horse
  • DANCERS1FAN · That is SOOOO INCREDIBLE that you got to meet Native Dancer!!!! He died when I was one so I did not get that chance but I discovered him in a book when I was 7 and fell in love!!!! I have researched him extensively and I think he was amazing!!! Too bad it was 60 years ago now that he raced and many people have not heard all the details about him to fall in love like I did and as did all those who watched him back then!!! · 1832 days ago
that 6.5 run was on the old diagonal straight course,,,,with no turns, so that has to be considered
  • DANCERS1FAN · It was the 6.5 furlong world record 'on a straight course' that he equalled. Back then that was a separate record but I don't see that it is tracked any longer.... · 1833 days ago
If I am not mistaken, DANCERS1FAN, Native Dancer won the WIthers between the Derby and the Preakness!
As much as I love Spectacular Bid and once had a mare by him, I think there is simply no argument that Native Dancer was the more important horse. I am a breeder, and as the grandsire of Mr. Prospector and the broodmare sire of Northern Dancer, Native Dancer is one of the most ubiquitous horses to be found in modern U.S. pedigrees. Spectacular Bid may have captured more headlines as a racehorse, but Native Dancer's class will remain stamped on the breed.
As did Citation.
Old Grover Delp would have run out his entire career as a claiming trainer in Marylnad if it weren;t of this horse making his career,
Simply put, THE BID was SPECTACULAR, As Bud Delp said" The best horse ever to lookk through a bridle"
I love both horses but Native Dancer is my all time favorite race horse! By the way - he equalled the WORLD record for 6 1/2 furlongs as a two year old in The Fururity!!! Times of races nealry 30 years apart really cannot accurately be compared. Not to mention that it was well known that The Dancer often ran only as fast as he had to in order to win - kind of like Zenyatta (who is his great great granddaughter). He won evey race he ran in except one and had more than enough excuses for that loss. Many people do not realize that when he ran in the Derby it was already his 3rd consecutive week of racing. Back then the Gotham was run 2 weeks before the Derby and the Wood was the week before! Can anyone imagine a horse today running three Saturday's in a row, let alone in three top stakes races!?! Also a little known fact is The Dancer tied up badly in the morning the week of the Derby and was still being treated for it the morning before. Now days if a horse ties up like that the week of a race, they do not run. It was also reported that he had a swollen ankle to due an incident on the train ride to Kentucky. So, it is very likely that he was far from his best that day and he still would have won with a better ride from his jockey. He was in a word - AMAZING!
Wow cool to see a horse on the cover of Time magazine, two great horses. I saw Spectacular Bid set the world record for 1 1/4 miles in the Strub the first time I ever saw a horse race in person. I don't know if he was better than Native Dancer, Affirmed, Seattle Slew or the other greats but he is the best horse to race in the last 30 years.
A little knownm pre-race interview with Turcotte before the Derby is interesting to read because he was quorted a saying he would simply try to run away from the field and the exact opposite took place. It appeared in the that year's K Derby ediition of the Form
A magical way of going http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1440573/
Easy movement is possible if the biomechanics of motion aid in that movem,ent. George Pratt of MIT measured the effect of Sec's stride (outlined in the great video A Special Way of Going) and showed that there was the smallest overlap of two legs on the gound at the same time than ANY horse he ever measured. Look at great athletes in any field of endeavor, their biomechanical advantage allows the minimal effort for the mazimum output
It's nearly impossible to compare horses even in the same race because their not machines and not always at their best but when they are they are they are the best.ex: Damascus, Buckpasser, Dr. Fager and two rabbits. With or without the rabbits Damascus wasn't going to lose that day. It was actually stunning to see two great horses like Buckpasser and Dr. Fager lose by 10 lengths to a hores that was full of himself that day.
Hands down the bird was the better race horse, but when it came to breeding and blood line native dancer was the best. Spectacular bid goes #2 of all time and native dancer#6
Spectacular Bid was undeniably one of the greatest racehorses of the 20th century, but Native Dancer was not only a great racehorse, he was 1 of the most infuential sires of all time. (In Bloodhorse's list of the 100 greatest racehorses Native Dancer was #7 & Spectacular Bid was # 10.)
This is hard but like buckpasser ND holds my heart As a kid watching the first televised Derby with this beautiful gray trying so hard to find his way to the wire first I fell head over heels for a horse and for racing all in 2 mins. NATIVE DANCER! Then and now and forever
I never saw these horses race, but I will go with Spectacular Bid for many reasons
I only know the history of these two horse and I can tell that they were both incredible animal who could have done it all. It is hard to choose who was the greatest out of the two but if I could own one of them, I think I would choose Native Dancer.
Grey Ghost was a wonderful book.
I have read the book about the Grey Ghost and Vanderbilt was characterized as most of us: he loved the racing game...Not surprised you received that letter

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