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Native Dancer never measured anything, except his opponents’ shortcomings. But he is an outstanding example of how biomechanical analysis can work to help breeders understand the complexity of successful matings and trends in the game.

A grandly made, massively muscled son of Preakness winner Polynesian and the winning Discovery mare Geisha, Native Dancer reshaped the breed in his own image.

It is not the image that was preeminent in his own time, however. The transitional aptitudes of the classic-quality miler who excelled at 10 furlongs was the beau ideal of the 1940s through the 1960s, when Nasrullah and his son Bold Ruler were the most important influences on American breeding, ably assisted by Princequillo and his great son Round Table.

These horses were beautifully balanced in their physical quality and in their biomechanical properties, as well. And if they had a degree of mechanical imbalance about them, it tended to be toward stride length. They were good-bodied, medium-sized to big horses with speed and stamina. A breeder, however, would never mistake a Nasrullah for a Quarter Horse, which is the archetype of the power profile in mechanical development.

On the other hand, Native Dancer possessed those power characteristics of the Quarter Horse allied with size and scope that allowed him to excel at distances from five furlongs to a mile and a half. Native Dancer, in terms of his physical traits, was out of synch with much of the breed by having so much more power than the typical strains of Thoroughbred used by major breeders.

At first it seems illogical that horses you might call “imbalanced” can be outstandingly successful, but a good horse who is not mechanically balanced is exceptionally developed in one respect or another.

Examples of this type include the once-beaten Native Dancer, as well as his son, the important sire Raise a Native. While Native Dancer was a good sire during his own lifetime, it was only after his death, through his sons and daughters, that Native Dancer’s full impact on the breed began to develop and transform the breed.

In the case of Native Dancer and his descendants, the breed norms have drifted in the direction of the great gray himself. Although considered to be only a good stallion during his own lifetime, Native Dancer had a transcendent influence on the breed, and his lasting contribution seems greater over time.

This result cannot be explained simply by the preference for Native Dancer by breeders themselves. Instead, the traits that Native Dancer possessed: considerable body length, very good size, and a very large hip and hind leg – have become standardized among an elite population of stallions and mares.

For reasons that are partly social and partly economic, the traits that Native Dancer possessed had never become standard among the elite breeding stock of the Thoroughbred. For one thing, the great breeders of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century wanted to breed the classic horse, the horse who could excel over a mile and a quarter to a mile and three-quarters at 3, and the great majority of the power types would never be able to do this.

Native Dancer was able to carry his speed, and he came to prominence at a time when the economics of the sport were shifting rather dramatically from aristocratic domination by a handful of families and breeders. From the 1950s to the present, the influx of “new wealth” into Thoroughbred racing and breeding has propelled the value of Thoroughbreds upward by a factor of 50 to 100 times what they were worth a half-century ago.

The influence of this economic boom also has created a fully developed commercial marketplace for racehorses, and the buyers at these markets want action. They want horses who are going to be fast, contend for the important prizes, and perhaps they can make it to the classics, as well.

And the model for the “modern commercial Thoroughbred” is Native Dancer: big, round-bodied, strongly muscled, with a long hip, big gaskin, and shoulder. These are the traits of the biomechanical power horse.

Even among this tribe, there are variants. The most classic of these, led by the Fappiano and Unbridled crowd, also includes some unrelated but similar individuals, and their traits have become the preferred qualities many of the best performers in the breed who can stay 10 furlongs.

Some of the other strains of the power horse tribe are life and death to stay past a mile, and in that, they are showing the tendency of the purely power horse to gravitate toward short distances. For, while Native Dancer and his descendants have produced a gravitational shift in the breed, the forces of nature are apparently swinging back toward a more classic and better mechanically balanced type of horse that will take us through the coming decades.