In a response to yesterday’s post about Dark Star, John Sparkman tipped my hand a bit by saying that the physical type of Dark Star — elegant, somewhat lightly made horses with excellent stride quality — was a type on the way out.
Indeed, the Teddy and Swynford lines that had dominated classic racing since the 1920s were finished. Only nobody knew it at the time.
In their place, a powerful animal has come to be the American classic type whose model is Native Dancer, big and heavy-topped and fast. Winner of the 1953 Preakness and Belmont Stakes, Native Dancer was a top-level classic horse. In that he wasn’t unparalleled. There have been at least a half-dozen in the decades before and after the 1950s who were approximately as good, even if not almost unbeaten. For instance, Citation had at least as good a record at 2 and 3, although he lost twice in that time.
But Native Dancer is the most excellent form of the new Thoroughbred that has come to dominate much of racing around the world.
To describe him, I will offer some notes from the Daily Racing Form columnist Charlie Hatton, who wrote: “Usually Native Dancer was the largest horse in any post parade in which he took part.” That is not solely about height, although the gray son of Polynesian stood 16.1 hands at 3, grew another inch or so.
Hatton further noted that Native Dancer “was possibly the widest horse in training across the loin and hips.” We can see the horse’s mass in some of the films of him racing more than half a century ago, and one of the wonders of technology is that we can access this historical information and view the horse, rather than rely solely on the written comments (which in this case are really helpful, Mr. Hatton).
At 2, Native Dancer’s muscular development through his shoulders and forearms was so great that Hatton recouted that “it is rather singular to find one horse having the development of a sprinter before the saddle and that of a router behind.” At 3, Native Dancer filled in his rangier hindquarters with more muscle.
His feet gave out on him, and Native Dancer ended his 3yo season in August 1953 and made only three starts as a 4yo the next year. It is possible that his mass had outgrown his frame, although the horse was essentially sound. He just kept having “little problems.”
The question of soundness would be one of the most serious breeders would have about the horse’s offspring in coming years. They had size, they had speed, and some of them were tough as nails. Doc Thomas, breeder of Our Native, once told me that the Native Dancer stock had the highest pain threshold of any animals he had ever encountered.
They need the pain tolerance because the Native Dancer physical type (great mass and great power) produces exceptional speed, but the faster anything goes, the more strain it puts on all the working parts.
The more classic version of Native Dancer morphed into Sea-Bird (a grandson by French Derby second Dan Cupid), the miniature version ruled the world through Northern Dancer (out of Native Dancer’s daughter Natalma), and the American dirt version of Native Dancer descends primarily through Raise a Native, whose best sons were Exclusive Native, Mr. Prospector, and Alydar.