It is an axiom in my thinking that bad horses do not win the Kentucky Derby. Some are much better than others, and a few quite a lot less … but they are all good horses.
So, in evaluating Dark Star’s contributions at stud, I first estimate him as a very good classic winner. In large part, that is the result of his outstanding effort in the Kentucky Derby to defeat Native Dancer.
It took a horse of exceptional talent to hold Native Dancer, and despite the traffic trouble the great gray had during the race, when Native Dancer ranged into second early in the Churchill Downs stretch, he made no impression on the flying leader for a furlong and a half. Only in the final sixteenth did Native Dancer made great strides to catch Dark Star, missing only by a head.
For racing class, I would give Dark Star an A. For pedigree, he seems worthy of a B. His sire, Royal Gem II, was winner of the Caulfield Guineas in Australia, and Dark Star’s dam is the Bull Dog mare Isolde.
In physical type, Dark Star was made much like a classic Bull Dog / Teddy type, elegant and scopy with some strength. This physical type, primarily through Bull Dog’s great stallion son Bull Lea, was the best or equal to the best in the world through the 1940s and 1950s.
That physical type also tells us quite a lot about the racehorse that Dark Star proved to be. His strong point was his stride, and reviewing the 1953 Kentucky Derby again on any of the widely available sites will confirm, I believe, that Dark Star was used to absolute maximum potential when allowed to stride along freely going a distance of ground.
He was not a sprinter; instead he was ideally a front-running middle-distance horse. Horses of this type must have a very good stride, and Dark Star is lovely to watch as he sweeps through the Churchill stretch for the first and the second passes in front of the grandstand.
Another trait of this elegant, classic type of racehorse is that it is relatively light weight. If not extremely light, this is a good thing. Trainers used to complain about getting a pound added to their handicappers. Imagine if your horse was naturally 50 pounds or 100 pounds lighter than his competitors. That’s an advantage so long as it doesn’t keep him from losing too much energy from lack of muscle.
A further consideration for this lighter-weight, classic horse with a great stride is how tricky it can be to mate them effectively. Even those of the best athletic ability are not as consistent as some other types.
Dark Star sired many of his best progeny early when he was at Claiborne Farm, where Bull Hancock was helping to select mares for the horse. After Guggenheim pulled his stock off Claiborne in a dispute with Hancock, Dark Star stood at Spendthrift with less success.
Moreover, Dark Star’s best racer was the French-bred Gazala, a tall and elegant mare who won the Poule d’Essai des Pouliches and Prix de Diane. At stud, she produced another tall and leggy and slab-sided but very high-class horse named Youth, who proved a desperate failure as a stallion when asked to do what he was unsuited for: sire horses for racing on dirt in America.