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A Derby Memory: 1953

by Gary Roedemeier

Posted on February 13, 2013 at 1:24 PM

Updated Wednesday, Feb 13 at 1:25 PM

How does a kid growing up in St. Louis, Missouri get interested in the Kentucky Derby? You can blame television and one horse, a horse that didn't even win the Derby.

In 1953, network television was looking for all kinds of new programming and one new TV star was racing right in their backyard at Jamaica Race Track in New York.

Native Dancer was the undefeated two year old champion, who then won the Gotham and the Wood Memorial. He became a four legged media darling. and would one day be pictured on the cover of Time magazine.

The caption would read  "A little heartbreak, then a burst of glory." The heartbreak was the Kentucky Derby. It was a Derby that the kid in St. Louis did not want to miss.

But May 2, 1953 would find me on the way to my grandmother's house, 75 miles from St. Louis in a little town called Bourbon, Missouri. My grandmother did not have a television. And so, when we pulled into her driveway that afternoon, I told my Mom and Dad that I wanted to stay in the car and listen to the Kentucky Derby on the radio. There was a small dispute. Something about disappointing my grandmother, but I stood my ground.

And so, I sat in a 1952 Plymouth waiting for the 79th Run for the Roses.  We had a Plymouth because my grandfather was a Chrysler Plymouth dealer. We either had one or the other.  I had the front seat to myself and stretched out  to hear the race call on KMOX.

I was ready to witness, or at least hear history. The radio crackled with some static in the gray Plymouth, while I got ready to cheer home the big gray horse. I was about to get my first lesson in handicapping.  That lesson: There is no sure thing in a horse race.

When they broke from the gate that day at Churchill, a 25-1 long shot named  Dark Star, took the lead. Native Dancer broke slowly and was roughed up on the first turn by Money Broker. The Dancer finally circled the field at the top of the stretch and made his run.  The chart says Native Dancer "finished strongly, but could not overtake the winner, although probably the best." Dark Star would never win another race, but that day he won the Derby.

In one of my first reporting efforts, I ran into my grandmother's house to announce that Native Dancer had lost the Derby. I was greeted by puzzled looks, and finally my mother said, "that Gary sure loves his sports"

My grandparents did understand my "love of sports." They knew I loved baseball. That was part of the fabric of life in the midwest.

Oscar Roedemeier had pitched for the Bourbon Merchants. They had served breakfast to Cardinal pitcher Dizzy Dean after my grandfather had taken him bird hunting. But horse racing was unknown in rural Missouri.

The call I had heard on the radio was confirmed the next morning in the St. Louis Post Dispatch. The Dancer had lost but my excitement for the horse could not be quenched by his second place in the Derby.

And it's difficult to believe but two weeks after the Derby Native Dancer won the Withers Stakes in New York and a week after that took the Preakness.

I was not alone in my admiration for the horse that became known the Grey Ghose.  Dancer would win 21 of 22 races. His wins included the Belmont Stakes, the Travers, and the Metropolitan Handicap, known as The Met Mile. By the Spring of 1954, he was posing for Time.

A foot injury would end his racing career soon after that, but that was just the beginning of his legacy. Native Dancer sired Derby winners Kauai King, who won in 1966 and Dancer's Image, who won, but was disqualified in 1968.

But there's more.  His daughter Natalma was the dam of Northern Dancer, considered to be the most influential sire of the 20th century.

And Native Dancer sired Raise a Native, who sired Alydar and Mr. Prospector. By the time I actually witnessed a Derby in person, the Grey Ghost was still haunting Churchill Downs.

I saw Derby winners, Ferdinand, Alysheba, Unbridled, and Strike the Gold, who all carried the blood of Native Dancer.

The Dancer was denied the Roses himself but he left me an enduring affection for the Derby. And sometimes it seems, the best sporting events you see are those you hear on the radio.