There have only been a few juveniles in the history of American racing to be so dominant, and to accomplish so much, as to be named Horse of the Year. Although a few horses were so honored retrospectively, and in fact, long after their racing careers were over, the first two-year-old to officially win the award came in 1952. His name was Native Dancer, and although he was only at the tip of the iceberg of what his national fame would become, his juvenile season will go down as one of the best ever seen in thoroughbred horse racing.
The well bred, and well put together colt was a homebred for Alfred G. Vanderbilt II's Sagamore Farm. Trained by Bill Winfrey and ridden in every race by Eric Guerin, the gray youngster was a result of the pairing of sire, Polynesian, with Vanderbilt’s mare Geisha. Under the care of Winfrey, he was ready to make his career debut in April at New York’s Jamaica Race Course. The rest as they say, is history.
April 19, 1952 - 5f Md Sp Wt - Jamaica - Bet down to 7-5 for his career debut, Native Dancer would not disappoint as he stalked the early lead before powerfully motoring by for a 4 ½ length victory.
April 23, 1952 - 5f Youthful Stakes - Jamaica -The secret was out, and Native Dancer was 9-10 against 11 others in his stakes debut. The 6 length runaway confirmed the Sagamore runner as an emerging star.
August 4, 1952 - 5 ½f Flash Stakes - Saratoga - After a 3 ½ month hiatus forced by bucked shins, Native Dancer began his upstate odyssey with another win. Not even being carried wide on the turn could prevent another easy victory.
August 16, 1952 - 6f Saratoga Special - Saratoga - His first try over a sloppy track proved to be no problem for the son of Polynesian as he romped by 3 ½ lengths at odds-on once again.
August 23, 1952 - 6f Grand Union Hotel - Saratoga - Against his toughest competition so far, the Sagamore runner won in hand over Laffango and Tahitian Warrior in the third of his four Saratoga starts in August of 1952.
August 30, 1952 - 6 ½f Hopeful Stakes - Saratoga - Completing an amazing four stakes in four weeks streak at the Spa, Native Dancer earned his most important victory yet, while winning the prestigious Hopeful Stakes handily.
September 22, 1952 - 6f Anticipation Purse - Belmont - Prepping for the rich Futurity Stakes, Native Dancer beat a familiar foe, and fellow son of Polynesian, Tahitian King by 1 ¼ lengths. The winning margin was the most narrow of his juvenile season, but was completed while in hand.
September 27, 1952 - 6 ½f Futurity - Belmont - In the most important two-year-old contest of the time, Native Dancer dominated the $107k affair over Tahitian King and future Kentucky Derby winner, Dark Star, while running the 6 ½ furlongs in a blistering 1:14 2/5.
October 22, 1952 - 1 1/16m East View Stakes - Jamaica - Proving that he was more than a sprinter, Native Dancer completed a perfect 9-for-9 juvenile season with a strong win over Champagne winner, Laffango, in his first try around two turns.
Not only had Native Dancer steamrolled through all nine of his juvenile starts, but he also set a new record for two-year-old earnings with $230,495. He was rewarded at the end of the year by easily out-distancing One Count for Horse of the Year honors.
His first start as a three-year-old, in the Gotham Stakes, would also be his first race on national television. When the gray horse beat a field of chestnuts and bays on black and white screens across the country, a TV star was born. The fan favorite and national hero would go on to be one of the all-time greats of American racing, ultimately winning 21-of-22 starts, with only a narrow defeat in the Kentucky Derby standing in the way of Native Dancer from perfection. And it all began in 1952 for the Gray Ghost with his fantastic two-year-old season.