Point/Counterpoint: Native Dancer vs Spectacular Bid

Point/Counterpoint: Native Dancer vs Spectacular Bid

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.

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