Like so many other things, horse-racing both legitimized, and was legitimized by, the new medium of television during the 1950s. What horse-racing offered TV was the chance for this upstart medium, criticized from its inception, to broadcast a venerable and time-honored American pastime, the "Sport of Kings" which so many Americans associated with upward mobility. What TV offered Thoroughbred horse-racing was a chance to be seen by a vastly expanded audience, and a whole new generation.
The first racehorse to dominate the 1950s was, appropriately, born during the decade's inaugural year (1950-1967). A gray colt, sired in Kentucky by the 1945 Preakness winner Polynesian on the mare Geisha, Native Dancer went 9-0 in his two-year-old racing season.
But it wasn't just this astonishing record - it was the style in which he cinched these victories.
Coming from behind in a blistering kick, Native Dancer offered just the kind of suspense-packed, last-minute victories that are guaranteed to thrill a crowd, plus all the new fans watching at home on their TVs - and to provide sports reporters with just the dramatic hook they need. For all these reasons, he was the subject of inevitable hype and obsessive media attention during the months leading up to the 1953 Kentucky Derby. Here, sadly enough, Native Dancer's lossless streak snapped, with the repeatedly-fouled horse barely edged out by Dark Star.
But Native Dancer consoled himself (as well as his owners and, one may imagine, investors) with back-to-back wins at the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, as well as at every other race he entered that year.
The horse's brilliant career ended on this high note; he won the three races he entered in 1954, and was to compete in France's Prix de la Arc de Triomphe, but a recurring foot injury sidelined him - as it turned out, permanently. In 1954, the year of his retirement, he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, joining James Joyce, Reinhold Niebuhr and Adolph Hitler in Luce-magazine immortality.
This goofily-named bay colt from the prestigious Greentree Stables of Lexington, KY, followed in his parents' footsteps in being named oddly: his sire was Menow (say it slowly?) and his mare, Gaga. But his two-year-old racing season was no joke; he had five wins out of seven starts and earned the designation of Champion 2-Year-Old Colt for 1951.
Such an impressive debut ensured that Tom Fool entered his three-year-old season under public scrutiny, but an examination following his second-place finish at the Wood Memorial Stakes found that he'd been feverish for some time, running in the face of sickness. He didn't race for two months that year, but eventually returned to the track to finish out this three-year-old season, in which he managed to win a majority of races despite illness and a resulting interruption in training.
In 1953, he shone. Tom Fool won each of the ten races he entered that year, including the entirety of New York's Handicap Triple, a feat only two horses had accomplished to that point. He won at the Whitney Stakes and - a special victory - is final race, the Pimlico Special, and was voted the Eclipse Horse of the Year.
This one's a heartbreaker. One of the great blunders in sports history took place on this blindingly fast Irish stallion's back, when, in his three-year-old racing season, jockey Bill Shoemaker gave up a near-certain Kentucky Derby win by standing up a moment too early in his stirrups. (He thought he'd already won the race.) Gallant Man slowed just enough to let Iron Liege, ridden by legendary jockey Bill Hartack, to nose past him to a win.
But though this pride-goeth-before-a-fall moment is often cited among racing fans as one of the worst tactical mistakes in the history of Thoroughbred horse racing, Gallant Man led a brilliant career both before and after, more than deserving his place in the US Racing Hall of Fame and his thirty-sixth spot on Blood-Horse Magazine's Top 100 Racehorses of the Twentieth Century list. Just weeks after that heartbreaking Derby, Gallant Man destroyed a tough field at the Belmont Stakes, beating even Bold Ruler (that year's Horse of the Year) and setting track records not broken until Secretariat's 1973 victory.
Suffering chronically from bad ankles, and physically small (standing a little over fifteen hands), Gallant Man (named after a horse in a movie) won three prestigious handicap races before being put to stud in 1958. There, he sired 52 stakes winners. Not bad for a horse best remembered for a jockey's error.
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