02/26/2015 2:55PM

History Challenge: Tom Fool, Native Dancer made their marks in '53


During the 20th century, racing fans were blessed with a handful of seasons where two or more horses destined to be ranked among the greatest of all time were seen in action.

Arguably, the last such year of the century came in 1979, when Affirmed and Spectacular Bid, two horses generally ranked in the top 10 of the 1900s, were making headlines.

Two more from the top 10 were on the track in 1973 – Forego and Secretariat. But while they met in the Kentucky Derby, Forego did not win his first stakes race until Secretariat had been retired that fall.

In 1956, a well-traveled follower of the sport could have seen Bold Ruler, Gallant Man, Nashua, Round Table, and Swaps all in action. The five appear in the top 25 of The Blood-Horse’s “Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century.”

In 1967, Buckpasser, Damascus, and Dr. Fager came together for what may have been the most significant race of the century – the Woodward Stakes, won in a romp by Damascus. However, these three champions each had his signature season in a different year – Buckpasser in 1966, Damascus in 1967, and Dr. Fager in 1968.

Likely the strongest case for a year in which two of the century’s greatest horses were at their peak would be 1953. Native Dancer, ranked in a tie with Citation for third in the Associated Press poll of the top 10 racehorses of the century, and Tom Fool, ranked sixth in the same poll, each had his greatest year in 1953.

With the 40th running of the Tom Fool Handicap set for March 7 at Aqueduct, test your knowledge of these two magnificent champions.

1. Both Tom Fool (in 1951) and Native Dancer (in 1952) were overwhelming choices in all polls for champion 2-year-old male. The Thoroughbred Racing Association poll of racing secretaries and the Turf & Sport Digest poll of sportswriters both voted Native Dancer Horse of the Year at age 2 as well.

Tom Fool won five of his seven starts as a juvenile, finishing second in the other two. Four of these wins were in stakes, including the Sanford and Futurity.

Native Dancer won all nine of his starts as a 2-year-old – seven in stakes – including the Hopeful and Futurity.

The two were heavy winter-book favorites for the Kentucky Derby, which would be the only race that Native Dancer ever lost.

Tom Fool did not compete in the Triple Crown races of 1952. What happened?

2. Native Dancer wintered at Santa Anita in early 1953. He galloped Feb. 7 in front of 47,500 fans at the Arcadia, Calif., track but did not make his 3-year-old debut until he had returned east.

Sent off at 15 cents to the dollar in the first division of a new stakes race on the New York calendar, the Gotham Stakes at Jamaica on April 18, Native Dancer won ridden out.

A week later, Native Dancer scored an even more lopsided victory in the $100,000-added Wood Memorial at odds of 10 cents to the dollar.

He shipped to Louisville, where, one week later at odds of 3-5 in the Kentucky Derby, he failed to catch longshot Dark Star by a diminishing head.

Native Dancer finished his career with 21 wins in 22 starts. As with Man o’ War, who won 20 of his 21 starts, the one race each horse lost remains controversial to this day.

What happened to Native Dancer in the Derby, and what became of Dark Star?

3. As a 4-year-old in 1953, Tom Fool put on one of the most dominant performances in history. He started 10 times, winning all 10. He won from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/4 miles. He carried 136 pounds, 135, and 130 (twice).

In his final four races, all at weight for age, he was so superior that he twice faced only one competitor and twice faced only two. All four races were run as exhibitions, with no betting.

That same season, in addition to the Gotham, Wood, and Preakness, Native Dancer won the Belmont, Dwyer, and Travers stakes and the Arlington Classic and American Derby.

In an era where jockeys still did not appeal suspensions, it is unusual to find that Tom Fool was ridden in all 30 of his lifetime starts by one jockey, and Native Dancer was ridden by the same jockey in all but one of his 22 starts. Name these two Hall of Fame riders.

4. Had Dark Star not defeated him, Native Dancer would have finished the season an undefeated Triple Crown winner with a lifetime record of 19 for 19 and yet likely would not have been voted Horse of the Year. As it was, Tom Fool was the overwhelming choice in all polls for Horse of the Year.

Writing in 1953, renowned sportswriter and historian Joe Estes said, “most of the experts thought Tom Fool would have beaten him [Native Dancer] if the two had ever met.”

Why did these two greats never face each other?

5. Tom Fool and Native Dancer had remarkable careers at stud – each siring more than three dozen stakes winners.

Native Dancer, of course, has had the most lasting effect on the breed. Today, roughly 75 percent of all Thoroughbreds in America trace to him. It is not unusual for every horse in a Triple Crown race to trace back to Native Dancer, many through his son Raise a Native and grandson Northern Dancer.

But it was Tom Fool who came the closest to reproducing himself on the track with one of his sons or daughters. Of the horses most frequently rated in the top 10 of the century, only Man o’ War and Tom Fool sired a horse who appeared regularly among the top 25.

Man o’ War sired Triple Crown winner War Admiral. Who was Tom Fool’s greatest offspring?


1. Both Tom Fool and Native Dancer entered their 3-year-old seasons with everyone’s high expectations that they would wear the roses on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs. But it was not to be for either of them.

Tom Fool wintered in Aiken, S.C., along with all the other horses from the famed Greentree Stable and trainer John Gaver.

The bay gelding did not make his first start of 1952 until April 7, an overnight race at Jamaica. He won the six-furlong contest with something left.

Twelve days later, Tom Fool met 13 others in the Wood Memorial at Jamaica. He took the lead momentarily, held it until the top of the stretch, and appeared on his way to victory. But Master Fiddle came from out of the clouds to snatch victory in the last jump.

Two days after the race, Gaver reported that Tom Fool was running a high fever and coughing heavily. The colt was immediately declared out of the Kentucky Derby and did not recover enough to return to training until after the Belmont Stakes.

The illness and layoff took their toll, and Tom Fool lost his first two starts back. In the last six months of the year, he won the Wilson, Jerome, Sysonby, Grey Lag, and Empire City handicaps.

But by finishing third to One Count in the Travers Stakes, Tom Fool lost the championship to that late-developing colt, who also won the Belmont Stakes, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Empire City Gold Cup.

2. Dark Star took the lead soon after the start of the 79th Derby and never relinquished it. Native Dancer dropped back to seventh after the start and then was bumped off stride momentarily in the clubhouse turn by Money Broker.

Sportswriter Joe Estes called it “the most controversial carom of the year.”

No one will ever know whether it cost Native Dancer the head by which he lost the Derby. Sportswriters who witnessed the race had different opinions.

While reporters couldn’t agree on the effect of the bumping, most agreed that the $51.80 win mutuel on Dark Star was the overlay of the year.

A stakes winner at age 2, Dark Star was the second betting choice in the 17-horse Florida Derby field. He won the Forerunner Purse at Keeneland and then captured the Derby Trial.

The 1953 Preakness was run three weeks after the Derby (purists today who quibble about changing the timing of the classics might note this). In between the two races, Native Dancer won the Withers Stakes at Belmont Park, and Dark Star finished second in an allowance race five days before the Pimlico event.

In the Preakness, Dark Star (at 12-1) again tried to steal the race on the front end but bowed a tendon and finished 10 lengths behind Native Dancer (at 1-5). Dark Star was retired.

3. Tom Fool was ridden in all 30 of his lifetime starts by Ted Atkinson, known as “The Slasher” for his canny use of the whip.

Born in 1916 in Toronto, Atkinson recorded 3,795 victories before he retired from the saddle in 1959. He reached the zenith of his career riding for the Greentree Stable. This included piloting Horses of the Year Capot and Tom Fool.

In 1957, Atkinson became the first active jockey to be inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Following his retirement, Atkinson served as a state steward in Illinois for many years.

Eric Guerin rode Native Dancer in all but one of his 22 starts. In the American Derby, Eddie Arcaro substituted while Guerin was serving a 10-day suspension for his ride one week earlier on eventual champion Porterhouse in the Saratoga Special.

Guerin began riding in 1941 and won the Kentucky Derby with Jet Pilot in 1947. Soon thereafter, he became a contract rider for Alfred G. Vanderbilt and rode some of the stable’s top champions, including Bed o’ Roses, Next Move, and Native Dancer.

Guerin retired after riding for 34 years, with 2,712 lifetime wins. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972.

4. With the growing popularity of the new medium of television and horse racing ranking as the No. 1 sport in America – by attendance – nearly every race of Native Dancer’s was broadcast to huge network audiences in 1953.

There was a tidal wave of excitement over plans for the gray colt to meet Tom Fool to settle the question of who was the best.

Belmont Park more than doubled the purse of the Sysonby Stakes to $50,000 and moved the date from Oct. 6 to Sept. 26 to accommodate both owners’ schedules for their horses. At the same time, there were expectations that the two might also meet in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and/or Pimlico Special.

But everything came crashing in after Native Dancer won the Aug. 22 American Derby at Washington Park near Chicago. He bruised a foreleg in the race.

In a Sept. 10 workout, Native Dancer showed he was still sore and needed more time to heal. One of his bruises then became infected, delaying his return even longer. Finally, it was announced that he would retire for the season.

5. Buckpasser, a son of Tom Fool, won 25 of his 31 lifetime starts from 1965-67 – 21 of them stakes. At one point, he won 15 races in a row.

Buckpasser was champion at ages 2 and 3 and Horse of the Year at age 3. He set a world record for one mile (1:32 3/5) in Chicago and equaled the track record in winning the historic Travers.

Coincidentally, like his sire, Buckpasser was the heavy future-book favorite for the Kentucky Derby but missed all the Triple Crown races because of a quarter crack sustained after winning the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah (which, despite a field of nine, offered no betting because Buckpasser would have been such an overwhelming favorite).