50 Year Legacy of the Galloping Grey Ghost
The marker denoting the grave of Native Dancer at Sagamore Farm in Glyndon is a plain, small stone slab that gives the name of the horse and the years that he lived, "1950-1967".
It is just like the eleven other graves in the unmarked equine cemetery, austere in its simplicity, also quite surprising in that Native Dancer, one of the true giants of the Thoroughbred breed, died so young. Seventeen years pales in comparison when horses like the great Standardbred sire, Albatross, lived to be 32.
"I suppose if this horse were buried in Kentucky, there would be a monument erected to him," said Carol Kaye Garcia, who along with her husband, Carlos, the celebrated flat trainer, leases the farm. The current owners, Jim and Patsy Ward, who purchased Sagamore in 1986 from Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, Native Dancer's recently deceased owner/breeder, live most of the year in Florida and only keep a few dressage horses there in the summer.
Although Native Dancer's grave lacks distinction, it's safe to say that he is unlike any of the other horses buried in this simple site next to the Sagamore training track. Quite literally, Native Dancer is in a class of his own. The small remembrance hardly depicts the mighty grey horse's lasting legacy as a sire in the Thoroughbred breed.
Without Native Dancer, there would be no Mr. Prospector. Or Northern Dancer. Or Affirmed-Alydar "match races" in the Triple Crown. Or an Easy Goer to give Sunday Silence the run of his life. Or quite literally the last two Kentucky Derby winners, Real Quiet and Charismatic. Even Maryland's triumvirate of top stallions--Two Punch, Polish Numbers, and Allen's Prospect--all descend from the "Galloping Grey Ghost" of Sagamore, who died 33 years ago of a twisted intestine.
All are direct descendants, either through Native Dancer's son, Raise a Native (sire of Mr. Prospector), or his daughter, Natalma (dam of Northern Dancer).
Even when this visitor goes on a recent visit to Sagamore, Carol Garcia is riding a yearling by Wayne County (imported from Ireland), who through his sire, Sadler's Wells, is another Native Dancer descendant.
Few of the people that worked with the horse are still alive. Alfred Vanderbilt died last month at 87. His trainer, Carey Winfrey, is also deceased, as is longtime Sagamore farm manager, Harold Ferguson.
However, there are still plenty of people around who remember Native Dancer in his youth. The grey colt, although raised in Maryland, was foaled in Kentucky. He was sired by Polynesian and was out of the mare, Geisha, by Discovery, a great Vanderbilt stayer and weight carrier of the 1930's.
Cynthia McGinnes, owner of Thornmar Farm in Chestertown, remembers being entranced at age 6 1/2 watching a newsreel of Native Dancer running in the 1953 Triple Crown. In 22 races, the only race Native Dancer lost was to Dark Star in the Kentucky Derby.
"Television was new then and only in black-and-white. All the horses looked the same except Native Dancer," McGinnes recalled. "He was grey and easy to follow. He was dubbed the 'Galloping Grey Ghost'. Mr. Vanderbilt had been a decorated World War II PT boat commander and it all seemed so wonderful, so romantic. I loved Native Dancer and followed him forever. It's one of the reasons I still love grey horses and one of the reasons I came to Maryland (from New York) to establish my farm."
Joe Kelly, who spent 26 years covering racing for the defunct Washington Star, missed Native Dancer's Derby defeat, but was at Pimlico to watch him win the Preakness. "This was a very popular horse. A real hero to horse people, particularly in Maryland," Kelly said. "Everyone thought he should have won the Derby (he lost by a head). The jockey, Eric Guerin got him in trouble in the first turn. So people were angry when he lost that race and couldn't wait for him to get revenge in the Preakness."
Kelly recalls that a horse named Jamie K. "ran the race of his life and really pressed Native Dancer (in the Preakness). But 'The Grey Ghost' came on and beat him a neck. It was tremendously exciting. It certainly wasn't a gimme."
After that Native Dancer won the Belmont Stakes by a similar neck margin and finished up the year as champion three year old. He only ran three times as a four year old, won all three, was named Horse of the Year and then retired to Sagamore after being sidelined with recurring ankle injuries.
"I think what most impressed people about Native Dancer is that he combined both speed and size," McGinnes said. "He was a great big horse. People associated speed with more compact, smaller Quarter Horse-type animals. But Native Dancer showed a horse could be big and fast. He displayed a lot of brilliance."
It took Native Dancer a while to establish himself at stud, but eventually he sired forty-five stakes winners, including two Kentucky Derby winners, Kauai King and Dancer's Image, who was later disqualified because of a positive drug test for Butazolidin. His most influential offspring over the long haul, however, proved to be Raise a Native, a champion two year old who became leading sire, and Natalma, dam of Northern Dancer.
Over the years, Sagamore came to be thought of as "holy ground" among Maryland horse people. Then events changed abruptly in 1986 with the passage of the Reagan Tax Bill which had a catastrophic effect on the racing industry.
Vanderbilt sold Sagamore to the Wards and thus ended the farm's gilded era.
Sagamore today is still very much a working horse farm. It has gone through several transformations and tenants, but now seems to have settled into a steady existence under the Garcias. They keep about 100 horses on the property. Carol Garcia commutes daily from Howard County to the farm to oversee the breeding stock and young horses while her husband oversees their sizable racing string at Laurel Park. In addition to her busy horse schedule, she is raising three sons.
Purists might blanche that it's not the Sagamore of old, but going into the New Millennium there are few horse farms still around that were founded in 1925, the year Sagamore was established, and are still in existence. A sign at the entrance notes that Sagamore is preserved farmland.
The stallion barn with its twin cupolas that once housed Native Dancer is now a stable for Patsy Ward's dressage horses, and a dressage ring is now erected in Native Dancer's old paddock.
To some Thoroughbred folk that might seem like a sacrilege. To others, it might seem like a good use for a lovely, small barn.
When Patsy Ward put up a sign saying Sagamore had now become the home of her favorite dressage horse, Gunther, as well as the former home of Native Dancer, Gunther's sign continuously kept mysteriously disappearing.
"No one knows who kept taking it down," Carol Garcia said. "Maybe it was someone in this area who thought it showed disrespect for Native Dancer."
Or perhaps it was the Galloping Grey Ghost himself, reminding human kind, that as long as there is a Sagamore, he will always be "King."
© The Equiery 2010