Skip to main content
Original Issue

When Guerin and the Dancer Were out of Step

Twenty Derbys have now been run at Churchill Downs since 1953, when Jockey Eric Guerin had a bad day on that famous horse, but nothing about any of them has dimmed his recollections

After too many days of rain the sun returned over Miami, and for Eric Guerin, who likes all the help he can get in sweating weight from his slim 48-year-old body, the warmth was welcome. Seated on an aluminum folding chair in front of the jockey quarters at Hialeah Park, Guerin watched a platoon of small men in multicolored silk uniforms parade past, and he spoke to a few. He had expected to ride in the second race that day, but his horse had been scratched, and for him there were no others. There had been one mount earlier in the week; none the week before. "Mounts are a little hard to come by right now," he said, his voice softened by his bayou background.

A race began and Guerin flipped open a program as he listened to the report over the track public-address system. The sun made him squint as he read, deepening the many lines in his weathered thin face. His hair is nearly as black as when he rode Native Dancer, but now there is some silver at the temples. And his nose, many times smashed from falls in a career that has spanned 32 years, seems out of place, as though someone had sculpted a sharply featured face but left the nose a large lump of clay. His eyes, like his voice, are soft, filled with patience.

The race done, Guerin closed his program. "I suppose you want to talk about Native Dancer," he said to the man sitting next to him. Then he laughed and added, "And the Kentucky Derby."

For Eric Guerin it always comes down to that. Although by 1973 he had ridden 2,680 winners and his mounts had earned $17,125,718, on a May day 20 years ago he rode Native Dancer to second place in the Kentucky Derby and everything else became background music. It was the great gray colt's only loss in 22 races, and when a hero falls the public doesn't want violins, it wants to hear drums roll. Guerin has heard nothing but sticks on the snares ever since.

"I've grown used to it," he said. "I guess I've had maybe 2,000 interviews since, and every time it begins with, 'What about the Dancer and the Derby?' But I don't mind. To tell you the truth, I never get tired of talking about that horse. I guess he'll always be my favorite subject."

On that first Saturday of May in 1953 all had seemed right for Guerin and Native Dancer. Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt's powerful gray had bedeviled his rivals as he easily won his first 11 races, and if there was anything to beat him at Churchill Downs it would be triggered from a rifle rather than a starting gate. The horse was brutishly beautiful, with an explosive come-from-behind style that won races by a whisker and fans by the millions. He was also delightfully lazy and only went all out—his belly close to the ground, his awesome stride a full foot longer than that of Man o'War—in the closing moments when all seemed lost. He always stood out from the rest, and he became the country's first racehorse television star. Wherever he was stabled, sacks of fan mail flowed. When he was moved by train, fans appeared at every stop along the way.

"It's hard to explain how I felt about that horse," Guerin said. "I used to go to the barn, and I'd watch that gray horse and I'd get a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. I'm just sorry that every jockey didn't have the chance to ride him so they would all know how magnificent he really was."

The only other to ride Native Dancer was Eddie Arcaro, who, ironically, is on record as having said in mid-1953 that he didn't think Vanderbilt's ace was anywhere near as good as had been reported. "All Native Dancer has done," Arcaro said, "is go around beating the same horses, and most of the time carrying equal weight.... Would you call him a great horse?"

And then, just before the $112,600 American Derby at Washington Park, Guerin drew a 10-day riding suspension while winning with Porterhouse at Saratoga. It was to be the only time he would miss a ride on Native Dancer. "I almost cried," he said. "It wasn't the money; it was just the great thrill of riding him."

With Guerin out. Trainer Bill Winfrey went to Vanderbilt with two names: Arcaro and Teddy Atkinson. The millionaire owner, a man with a silver star won as a PT-boat officer in World War II, a keen sense of humor and a fondness for sloppy hats, ended up with the detractor, Arcaro. "Oh, oh," said Arcaro. "If I lose with him I'll be the biggest bum in the world." Then he took the Dancer on a trial spin and allowed, "He's a big powerful animal." At Washington Park officials canceled the show betting, prompting Columnist Red Smith to write in the New York Herald Tribune: "The sturdy old American virtues of avarice, stupidity and parsimony, qualities that have won for racetrack operators the warm affections which the public ordinarily reserves for pawnbrokers and dogcatchers, were gloriously exemplified...." (Washington Park officials, mindful of the $46,012 minus show pool Native Dancer had created earlier in the Preakness, ignored Mr. Smith.)

When Native Dancer won the American Derby by two lengths—he could have won by 10—Arcaro changed his opinion. "I guess the Dancer's about everything they say," Eddie allowed.

On the day of the Derby there was no sense of impending disaster. Guerin was as nervous as usual, but he knew the butterflies would be gone as soon as he mounted the big gray. It has been said of Eric Guerin that he was, and may still be, the best sit-still guy riding, impossible to panic into making a bad move and utterly fearless when it comes time to shift into a quicker gear. "I just follow orders," he always said. "I'm pretty good at that. I figure most of the time the trainer knows the horse better than anyone else. So I just do whatever the man tells me."

In the same field were Dark Star and Money Broker, and neither figured to do much. Dark Star, who would go off at 25 to 1, was owned by Captain Harry Guggenheim, a former ambassador to Cuba who had bought him by mistake. Guggenheim had looked at two brown colts bred by Warner L. Jones Jr., picked out one and by mistake picked up the other. When Jones offered to make a switch, Guggenheim said, "Never mind. I've got this one now and I kind of like him."

A speed horse, Dark Star flew from the gate under the urging of Henry Moreno, took the lead on the rail and was out in front of any trouble as the horses passed the stands for the first time. Back in the pack, Native Dancer loafed into the first turn when, suddenly, Money Broker swerved over and crashed into him.

"He just didn't want to run early," Guerin said. "And when he didn't want to run, he didn't run. All I could have done was put the whip to him, and if I had the trainer and the owner would have thought I had gone crazy. I'd never really whipped him before."

Al Popara, on Money Broker, would forever claim that the bumping was accidental.

"He nailed me deliberately," Guerin was reported to have said two days after the race. "I looked him straight in the eye going into the turn. I knew that he was going to do it before he hit my colt." (Guerin now denies the quote and disclaims any unfriendly feelings for Popara.)

Critics have always contended that Guerin, who won the Kentucky Derby with Jet Pilot in 1947, should have realized that a foul call in the Derby was as rare as a mint julep in Moscow and that he therefore should have forced Native Dancer closer to the lead to avoid expected batterings. Which is like blaming a man for accidentally falling out of a 10th story window on the grounds that he knew the sidewalk was made of concrete.

"The actual bumping didn't bother me." Guerin went on to his new friend at Hialeah. "It's what it did that hurt. It turned my horse around and he ended up on the heels of the horse inside us. I had to take him up sharply."

But Native Dancer recovered on the backstretch and went on to pass Straight Face. Swinging wide coming around the turn for home, Guerin tried to save ground by ducking inside at the head of the stretch, but he found the way blocked and was forced to the outside once more.

Years later Vanderbilt would tell Arthur Daley of The New York Times: "I disagree that the race was lost in the early stages. The Dancer had overcome it and moved back into contention. Coming around the last turn, though, Eric lost confidence in the horse and began cutting corners. He dropped to the inside instead of swinging wide as he always did before. In thinking back on it, I find myself wondering if he got panicky—I never said this to anyone before—and reacted as if it had become a life or death proposition. He should have said to himself, 'This isn't an ordinary horse. This is the Dancer. He can still win from the outside.' "

Native Dancer almost made it in spite of the early problems. "I put the whip to him," Guerin said. "He had never felt it that way before and he really flew. He saw the other horse in front of him and he just leveled off and went after him." At the wire it was Dark Star by a head. After the race, Native Dancer for the first time missed the winner's circle; his groom claimed that the horse was profoundly affected.

"I think then he realized what had happened," Guerin said. "It's really strange: until that day he was the laziest horse in a workout you could find—always playing, never serious. If he didn't have another horse to work with, he just wouldn't work. And if the other horse stopped, he'd stop."

One story goes that Native Dancer, ever curious, once spent a morning workout watching a pair of steeplechasers taking jumps. A few mornings later, as the early sun caused the furlong poles to cast long shadows across the track, Native Dancer apparently decided to try what he had seen the other horses doing. Each time he came to a shadow, he jumped it.

"But there was no more foolishness after the Derby," Guerin said. "From that moment on, whatever you asked him to do in a workout he did."

For Native Dancer that one trip past the winner's circle was enough. He went on to win the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, and then seven more races, and finally was retired to stud as a 4-year-old after a bruised foot ended his racing days. Guerin, tall for a jockey at 5'4" and forever fighting his weight, went on riding. Both were named to the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame: the horse in 1963, the jockey last year.

"Eric never retired, but because of weight problems the last few years he hasn't been riding that much," says Trainer George Poole, who has given Guerin many of his recent rides. Last year the jockey went to the post but 90 times, won nine.

"He didn't ride much because he was too heavy," Poole said. "But now he's down to where he should be and I use him because I think he is just as good as he ever was. He knows where he is going in a race and he seldom gets into trouble. And after he gets off a horse, he can tell you something. I've been around for 45 years, and as far as I'm concerned he's the best there is at informing you about a horse he has ridden. The young breed of trainers apparently look upon him as a thing of the past, but he hasn't lost anything. He's strong and fit and he can ride with the best of them. But people like a winner and he hasn't won much lately because he hasn't ridden much lately. Let him win a few. Then you'll see."

In the meantime, Guerin takes the mounts he can get and he keeps on with the stringent diet he's followed all his adult life: for breakfast a poached egg, one slice of diet toast and half a cup of coffee. No lunch. And for dinner one small piece of lean meat, a vegetable and a salad with no dressing. He works horses almost every morning.

"I'm fit and I'm strong," he said. "I don't think I've lost anything. People have been retiring me for 15 years, but I love to ride too much to quit. Someday, but not now. I've even beaten the steam box."

Now that he spends most of his time around Miami, he uses the Florida sun to sweat off pounds. Each day when the sun is shining, he puts on two shirts and a jacket, climbs into his car, rolls up the windows and sits there.

"I never drive anywhere," he said. "I just get a good sexy book or a Reader's Digest and read. I lose three or four pounds like nothing." He laughed. "It's no sweat."