Thoroughly bred

The Baltimore Sun

When a great horse goes down, everyone seems to come together, funneling toward a greater good and higher purpose. We rush to fix this beautiful and broken sport with our megaphones, our picket signs and our finger-pointing.

So it was no surprise that when Eight Belles was put down, just moments after crossing the Kentucky Derby finish line, the list of culprits couldn't grow fast enough. Overbreeding, track surfaces, drugs. But most curious of all was the finger pointed at another racehorse, one that died 41 years ago. How could this be?

Native Dancer was known as the Gray Ghost. Raised and trained at Sagamore Farms, near Glyndon, he was the best racehorse to ever call Maryland home. Not only that, but he was also the most iconic and celebrated horse of his time - Native Dancer was, in fact, once on the cover of Time. He won the 1953 Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes and Travers Stakes, and Blood-Horse magazine named him the seventh-best racehorse of the 20th century.

But Native Dancer retired in 1954, so why all the commotion now, with his career long over, his legacy long cemented?

Before this year's Kentucky Derby, The Wall Street Journal pointed out that all 20 starters in the field descended from Native Dancer. (In fact, an estimated 75 percent of today's thoroughbreds can trace their roots back to the Gray Ghost, including the past 14 Derby winners.) The initial report warned, though, that Native Dancer's offspring might be prone to foot or leg injuries, pointing out that Native Dancer stopped racing as a 4-year-old and Barbaro was from the same bloodline.

"Like hemophilia in the Russian royal family, Native Dancer's line has a tragic flaw," the paper reported.

The suggestion was seemingly confirmed at Churchill Downs, when the filly Eight Belles, Native Dancer's great-great-great-granddaughter, suffered compound fractures in both front ankles after the race. The Wall Street Journal followed its report, again connecting familial dots from Native Dancer to Barbaro to Eight Belles and asking whether inbreeding has corrupted a champion bloodline.

"There's just no reason to think the flaws go back to Native Dancer," Alfred G. Vanderbilt said yesterday.

Vanderbilt's great-grandfather, Isaac Emerson, the inventor of Bromo-Seltzer, gave Sagamore Farm as a gift to Vanderbilt's grandmother, Margaret Emerson, who in turn gave it to his father, Alfred Vanderbilt II, as a 21st birthday present. Vanderbilt's father also once owned Pimlico Race Course, but Sagamore Farm and Native Dancer were always his pride and joy, which is partly why it's so distressing to see the bloodline called into question so many years later.

"All these great horses are not descended from him because he's fragile," Vanderbilt said. "They're descended because he was a champion and he was durable."

I spoke with Alan Porter, a well-respected pedigree consultant who has been studying and writing about breeding for more than 30 years. He called any assertion about Native Dancer's line and a propensity for leg injuries "salacious" and lacking in historical perspective.

"It's a leap," he said, "devoid of logic.

"The first thing people have to understand is the difference between a catastrophic breakdown due to bad step and one due to unsoundness. They're not the same thing. This filly was not an unsound filly. For some reason, she took a bad step.

"To draw a line from a filly breaking down to saying the entire breed is less sound is really a flawed chain of logic. There's a whole bunch of assumptions that are involved there."

Porter takes issue with dragging Barbaro's name into the discussion. Though it's true the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner is a great-great-great-grandson of Native Dancer, the Gray Ghost is but one of 32 ancestors five generations ago - just 3 percent of Barbaro's gene pool.

Similarly, Porter has a hard time attributing Eight Belles' shortcomings to her great-great-great-grandfather. Sure, both of her parents, three grandparents and four great-grandparents stretch back to Native Dancer, but Big Brown, the Derby winner and likely Preakness favorite, was actually much more closely inbred. Big Brown happens to have the same great-grandpa on both sides - Northern Dancer, grandson of Native Dancer. Plus, his maternal granddaddy Damascus is also his paternal great-granddaddy. (Someone call Jerry Springer!)

Despite what you might have learned from a tired Jeff Foxworthy routine, Porter said, in racehorses, inbreeding increases the chances of passing along strong genes while decreasing the likelihood of negative ones. He pointed out that all thoroughbreds stemmed from just three stallions and many, many champions through the years have been closely inbred. Though there have been recurring discussions about possible dangers, evidence has been anecdotal at best.

"There were pages and pages written about Northern Dancer and inbreeding," said Porter, who has planned matings for more than 20 years and has authored three books on the topic. "Now it happens so frequently that nobody even mentions it. Within a period of probably 15 years, it's gone from being an emotive subject to it being so commonplace."

Like the Derby, every starter in this year's Preakness can trace his ancestry to Native Dancer. Vanderbilt finds that stunning and said it's a testament to the Gray Ghost as a champion and something that would have made his father very proud.

Just maybe, Vanderbilt said, "1,000 years from now, we say we saw every racer came from the great Gray Ghost."

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