07/24/2015 2:07PM

Hall of Fame: Vanderbilt never looked back

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Keeneland photo
Alfred G. Vanderbilt, seen here with the famed Discovery, is among this year's Hall of Fame inductees in the Pillars of the Turf category.

Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt II was born into the highest of society, his 1912 London birth announcement printed on the front page of the New York Times. The great-great-grandson of railroad tycoon Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt was 2 when he lost his father aboard the Lusitania and was raised thereafter by his mother, a racing fan and daughter of the millionaire Baltimore druggist who invented Bromo-Seltzer.

Horse racing and breeding were never a sideshow or hobby for Vanderbilt but grew early on into a burning life’s passion. In his mother’s Pimlico box for the 1923 Preakness, then-10-year-old Alfred placed a winning bet on Vigil and was hooked. On his 21st birthday, Vanderbilt inherited the 600-acre Sagamore Farm in Maryland along with 50 horses of moderate class, a maternal gift that prompted him to drop out of Yale and pursue racing full time. He never looked back.

One of the first things young Vanderbilt did was pay $25,000 for a promising juvenile named Discovery. The purchase changed his life, for Discovery not only became a Hall of Fame racehorse and one of America’s all-time great handicap weight carriers but also the broodmare sire of Vanderbilt’s future homebred Hall of Famers Native Dancer and Bed o’ Roses.

Things happened fast and furiously for the “boy wonder.” By age 23 in 1935, Vanderbilt reigned as America’s leading owner by stable earnings, a title he recaptured in 1953. At 24, he became the youngest member ever elected to the Jockey Club, and the next year found himself president and controlling owner of Pimlico Race Course, where he installed a photo-finish camera, a public-address system, and the Puett mechanical starting gate while cleverly marketing the Preakness Stakes. He was just 26 when he rescued a dying track and organized the never-to-be-forgotten Seabiscuit–War Admiral match race, and not yet 30 when he assumed leadership of Belmont Park to oversee New York’s epic transition from bookmaking to pari-mutuel betting.

Vanderbilt took time off from racing to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War II, earning a Silver Star for courage in piloting a South Pacific PT boat. Back in the states, he was soon after dropped from the Social Register due to his marriage to a nightclub agent and actress.

The crowning achievement of Vanderbilt’s long years as a breeder hit the racetrack in 1952 in the form of Native Dancer. The “Grey Ghost of Sagamore” lost only once in 22 starts – the 1953 Kentucky Derby, by a head – but hauled his sport to the national forefront as racing’s first television-age hero. Native Dancer, later a top sire as well, was one of 77 homebred stakes winners for Vanderbilt, whose recipe for success was simple and straightforward: “All I know about breeding can be said in a minute. If you breed a mare of ability to a stallion of ability, you’ve got a better chance of getting a horse of ability than if you don’t.”

The tall, dapper, handsome sportsman was voted four times as “the man who did most for racing” by New York turf writers. And no wonder. In addition to helming both Belmont Park and Pimlico, he served as chairman of the New York Racing Association and president of both the Thoroughbred Racing Associations and Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. In 1994, Vanderbilt was presented the Eclipse Award of Merit.

The New York Times referred to Vanderbilt as “the impresario of horse racing … the very model of a blueblood.” By his admission, racing was the great love of his life – and his most exciting moment was always the last race he’d won. He worried late in life about the direction his beloved industry was taking, perceiving it as evolving from true sport into an avenue strictly for gambling. Simulcasting particularly bothered him. “They even open the track for betting now when the horses are running someplace else,” he complained. “If they keep doing that, they’ll skip the horses entirely. It ain’t what it used to be.”

On Nov. 12, 1999, Vanderbilt spent his customary morning at Belmont Park. Later that day, at age 87, the man who had done so much to build racing into a major sport, died in his sleep at his home in Mill Neck, N.Y.