Where else do I start this story than with Alfred’s great grandfather, a titan of American industry. In the mid nineteenth century, Cornelius Vanderbilt known as “The Commodore” built one of the largest fortunes in the world with a business empire that included both shipping and railroads as its main components. The Grand Central Railroad was its crown jewel. In today’s inflated currency his fortune would be an astounding 100 billion dollars.
Alfred’s father was a third generation Vanderbilt. In1915 he had the unfortunate luck of being a passenger along with his personal valet on the British ocean liner Lusitania. Just a few miles off the Irish coast, she was struck by a torpedo launched from a German submarine. Lusitania survived for only eighteen minutes. The legend of Alfred Vanderbilt Sr. was to live on. In this short time, he along with his valet, with no regard for their own lives, proceeded to help others to lifeboats and safety. Then he enacted the ultimate gesture of kindness. He gave his life vest to the mother of a young child. To understand the gravity of this, one must first realize that Vanderbilt could not swim. This was tantamount to sealing his own doom. Honor was an oath to his gentry and he did everything one would expect from this gentleman of a bygone era. He passed into history as Lusitania sank beneath the waves on that fateful day. He was survived by his wife Margaret and three sons. He was only 37 at the time of his death.
Alfred Jr was just two years old when he lost his father. He was to have all the benefits of wealth growing up. Educated at private schools, he then attended Yale University. He was now prepared for adult life. Fortunately for American thoroughbred racing the seeds of his future had been planted long before his days at Yale. His mother Margaret took him to Baltimore’s Pimlico Racetrack for the Preakness Stakes when he was just eleven. That day was to have a profound effect on his life. From that day forward he in his own words stated, “I was hooked.” How many of us felt the same way when our fathers took us to Saratoga Racetrack for the first time?
At the age of twenty he was given as a gift from his mother, Sagamore Farm not far from Pimlico, where he bred and raced horses that rivaled any of that era. Racing horses was not enough for Vanderbilt. At the age of twenty-five he took ownership of a racetrack, that being the site of his first day at the races, storied Pimlico. It was here in 1937 where he would use his business sense and sportsman’s qualities to put together this country’s most famous match race. For a purse of fifteen thousand dollars he could get the owners of both The War Admiral, winner of the Triple Crown that spring, and the horse that the American racing public had fallen in love with, none other than Seabiscuit to meet at his track. The rest is cemented in horse racing history and lore. His overseeing of Pimlico was just a training exercise for his next move. America’ greatest racetrack was and still is Belmont Park. That is where he became president and was instrumental in making the transition in 1940 from the old bookmaker style of wagering to pari mutuel betting.
America’s entrance into World War Two disrupted his world, as it did so many others who put their lives on the line for our country. As a junior officer, he took command of a PT boat in the Pacific Theatre. His father’s son, he was awarded the Silver Star, one of this nation’s highest awards for gallantry under fire.
After the war, it was back to business, that business being “The Sport of Kings”. In the year 1950 the heavens opened and sent him the greatest gift of his storied life. Alfred’s great stallion Polynesian sired an uncommon grey colored foal from the broodmare Geisha. He was given the whimsical name, Native Dancer. In the horse racing season of 1952, he would dance his way into the hearts of racing fans everywhere. This was at the infancy of television. For the first time America could see their sports heros close up. And “The Dancer” gave them everything they asked for. As a two-year-old, he ran the table. He broke his maiden in his first start, a maiden’s special weight race at old Jamaica Racetrack, easily besting the field. He was on his way. After another easy win at Jamaica, it was on to Saratoga where he destroyed his competition in four consecutive races culminating with an easy win in The Hopeful Stakes on closing day. He finished out his unbeaten season downstate. He was on his way to the stalls of immortality and his three-year-old season would send him there.
He started that campaign with easy wins in both the Gotham and then the Wood Memorial.
“The Grey Ghost” as he was now fondly called was headed to Churchill Downs with his rider the highly capable Hall of Fame jockey Eric Guerin. They were unbeaten and poised to give Mr. Vanderbilt his much-coveted Kentucky Derby. Fate would have it otherwise. He was to be the victim of a horrible trip that day. Bumped early in the going “The Dancer” went off stride. Guerin quickly straightened him out. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done. The still confident Guerin did everything he could to get him back into the race. The great champion was forced to weave in and out of traffic to make up for lost ground. Despite all of this he could close the gap and bear down on the leader, long shot Dark Star. With each massive stride, he moved closer. At the finish only a head separated him from victory.
On a rare occasion, a racehorse will prove his greatness more in losing a race than entering the winner’s circle. It can be said that Native Dancer did exactly that at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May in 1953. The racing Gods had spoken. “The Dancer” would not get the Derby and that meant that Alfred did not get his. Native Dancer was never beaten again. He easily took the last two jewels of the Triple Crown. He made his way to Saratoga where he thrilled a huge crowd in winning that year’s Travers Stakes. He continued his winning ways. And fittingly ended his racing career here at the Spa in1954, when he decimated a three-horse field under 137 pounds and was named Horse of the Year despite having raced only three times in his last campaign. He had won 21 of 22 career starts.
If not for horrific luck in the Derby, his claim to have been the greatest thoroughbred of the twentieth century would be a fair evaluation. Mr. Vanderbilt never got another Dancer. If that were even possible.
He continued to race horses the rest of his life and served as Chairman of the Board of the New York Racing Association for four years from1971 to 1975. He passed away in 1999 at the age of 87. Since then he has been enshrined in The Hall of Fame as a Pillar of the Turf, a title reserved for those with the most outstanding contributions to thoroughbred racing. A most fitting tribute.
The City of Saratoga Springs was the August residence of Alfred Vanderbilt for much of his adult life. He certainly has left his mark here. His name is visible on street signs and an apartment complex. Native Dancer resides high on the list of Hall of Fame members at the National Museum of Racing here on Union Avenue. As you walk up this enchanted street to the onset of Congress Park you will see a beautiful equine statue in a scenic area known as Centennial Park. The statue is highlighted by water spouting fountains and an array of flowers. It was donated by Mary Lou Whitney and her husband John Hendrickson. The name of the horse, the immortal “Native Dancer.”