Ralph Nester: The Great Native Dancer

I hauled mares to different stallions in the sixties. One I remember very clearly:  I can still see the big grey massive build on this stallion.   I took a mare named Staretta (half-sister to Gamely, who was a champion on the west coast) to him to be bred.  She was a Dark Star mare owned by Penowa Farms.  (Incidentally, Dark Star was the only horse to beat Native Dancer.)

Well, I unloaded her and walked out to the white paddock fence to see Native Dancer. This was at Sagamore Farm, which was owned by Alfred G. Vanderbilt.  At his time, I wasn’t all that familiar with race records and pedigree, but I was learning every day.   The first thing I noticed was a copper shank still over his nose and no leather attached; the shank was attached to his halter.   His groom’s name was Joe Hall  (pretty sure that was his name, this was about 1962, long way back.)   Joe told me it was left there because he was hard to catch.  He put a shank on him and he let me hold another shank as he caught him and brought him in.

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I was good with some very tough horses, but his size and strength intimidated me. That’s only happened twice; with a mean filly my brother had, (Mary’s Sister) and Native Dancer.   When I held the shank and reached up to pet him, he knocked me sideways so fast it would make your head swim.  His jaws looked a foot wide.   Joe said, “Ralph, he’s tough.” I could see the sheer strength in him.  He was a tall (16.2 h) massive horse.

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People talk about Secretariat’s strength. I’ve seen both close up and Secretariat was a powerhouse.  But, Native Dancer was so massive and bull-headed.   I’m not really comparing the two; both greats in their own rights…just saying.

I was at Sagamore Farm the day the van arrived with Native Dancer when he passed. He came home from New Bolton Center where the operation on his stomach was unsuccessful.  The van driver was coming down the long lane leading into Sagamore Farm and he was blowing the horn on that rig and it was echoing across the hillside, it was a sad sound.  Joe said, “Man, don’t blow that horn no more.”  Joe was crying, they were bringing him home to be buried.  Sad day.

I was lucky to hold him and see him numerous times.   He was not your normal everyday pet horse.  Each time I saw him, I was very respectful of this powerhouse.

My memory of Native Dancer is that of me standing in front of him, that big head held so high, ears pricked forward…looking beyond everything and everybody with that look of the eagles, looking for another competitor to conquer…

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