Book review: John Eisenberg’s Native Dancer

The challenge of biographies is to make the subjects more than the sum of their accomplishments, of the events that make up their lives. The best biographies convey the inner lives of their subjects, as revealed through behavior and conversation and the artifacts of their lives: the letters they wrote, the art they created, the policies they designed, the events they orchestrated.

How, then, does one write a successful biography of a horse, who leaves behind no intentional artifacts, who is largely acted upon rather than acting, who exists and responds at the behest of the humans around him?

I suppose that one can’t talk about horse biography without mentioning Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, in which the author introduced us to a horse by re-creating the milieu in which he existed and raced: the history, the humans, the social and cultural trends. Without being imitative, John Eisenberg does the same thing in Native Dancer: The Grey Ghost, Hero of a Golden Age.

According to Eisenberg, Native Dancer’s ascent paralleled, and was in significant part due to, the introduction of television. Adroitly and seamlessly, Eisenberg weaves into the narrative of the magnificent horse the role that television played in the popularity of horse racing, and in making Native Dancer among the most popular athletes of his time (in addition to being one of the best named horses ever, by Polynesian, out of Geisha).

In clear, unadorned prose, Eisenberg tells the story of the grey homebred and of the people around him: Alfred G. Vanderbilt, the millionaire society icon who bred and raced the Dancer; Bill Winfrey, his trainer; Lester Murray, his groom; Eric Guerin, his jockey. Eisenberg’s writing is full of detail and affection but never draws attention to itself, allowing the characters and the story to take center stage. While the human characters support and develop what we learn about Native Dancer, it’s the horse who is the main character; the humans are interesting, but the story of the horse is compelling.

I imagine that those who read this book are more than willing to accept Eisenberg’s description of Native Dancer’s personality, more than willing to believe in the characteristics that the humans around the horse ascribe to him. Eisenberg relates an anecdote following the colt’s only loss, in the 1953 Kentucky Derby, and part of enjoying the book is being willing to see in the horse what the author tells us is there:

[Groom Lester] Murray snapped the shank on the beaten favorite. [Stable
watchman Harold] Walker led the horse back to the barn, with Murray bringing up
the rear. The crowds that had surrounded them all week were suddenly
gone. Murray would later swear the Dancer looked back as he walked away,
seemingly confused that he wasn’t getting to go to the winner’s circle, where he
had always gone after a race.

Another strength is the detailed racing history; we learn about breeding, about epic races run more than half a century ago, about a racing world that has all but disappeared, while at the same time finding striking parallels to racing as we know it. Reading the book this month, not long after the Belmont, I came across this paragraph about Native Dancer’s only loss, in the 1953 Kentucky Derby:

Indeed, numerous criticisms of the jockey’s performance slowly rose to the
surface over time, with various rivals and observers second-guessing him for (a)
holding the Dancer back in the first quarter mile, (b) asking for trouble on the
first turn by getting caught in a pack, (c) racing up the backstretch too
hurriedly, leaving little gas in the Dancer’s tank for the homestretch, (d)
moving down to the rail, from where the Dancer seldom charged, on the second
turn, (e) holding the Dancer back yet again at the top of the stretch,
postponing his final charge until it was too late, (f) getting caught behind
Dark Star in the stretch, forcing him to move off the rail as he rallied, and
(g) in general, giving the colt a ride consisting of so many stops and starts
and ins and outs that, as one steward reportedly later said, “He took that horse
everywhere on the track but to the ladies’ room.”

And Desormeaux thought he had it bad!

The book is an unabashed paean to Native Dancer and his connections; those seeking a critical eye should look elsewhere. Eisenberg tells the story of a colt whose talent and style captured the imagination of a nation, and reading the book more than fifty years later, it’s possible even for those of us who never saw him to race feel as though we’ve gotten to know him. The descriptions of the races are thrilling, and even though we know how they turn out, Eisenberg makes the journey through the race as gripping as the outcome. My favorite is his description of the 1954 Met Mile:

[Jockey Eric] Guerin had always ridden the Dancer with supreme confidence,
knowing he could wait until deep into races to make a charge because the colt’s
finishing kick was so strong. That confidence might have cost the Dancer
in the Derby, when Guerin hesitated, perhaps fatally, at the top of the stretch;
but since then, the jockey had all but perfected his use of the powerful racing
machine underneath him. The zenith of their understanding occurred in the final
furlong of the Metropolitan, with the finish line approaching, the crowd
shrieking, and the jockey on the horse in front of him furiously pounding
away. Guerin, cool amid the hysteria, put his stick away. He had
seen and felt enough. The Dancer was still running second, within a head
of Straight Face inside the sixteenth pole, the issue supposedly in doubt, but
Guerin’s hands went down. The gesture, as simple as it was stunning, spoke
volumes. The horse could take it from there. And the jockey knew the
horse could take it from there.

There are elements of popular non-fiction that, as an academic, I find hard to accept. While Eisenberg interviewed Beth Guerin (Eric’s wife? In his obituary, she is referred to as Bess), he doesn’t seem to have to spoken to Guerin himself (the jockey died in 1993), and the paragraph above, thrilling as it is, implies a knowledge of what was going on in Guerin’s head, inferred, perhaps, from watching a video or reading accounts of the race. Similarly, Eisenberg recounts comments from Lester Murray when he was alone with the horse, and Eisenberg doesn’t indicate that he spoke directly with Murray. I know that it’s acceptable to re-create conversations without direct evidence thereof; nonetheless, I found it jarring, and necessary to suspend a certain skeptical disbelief about whether conversations actually took place.

In the book Eisenberg refers to multitudes of articles, interviews, and news reports without supplying a bibliography or list of works cited. He provides enough information within the text that one could track down his sources, but I wonder why he doesn’t make it easier on his readers. Again, this is a convention of contemporary non-fiction, not necessarily a flaw of this particular book.

Eisenberg’s most recent book is The Great Match Race: When North Met South in America’s First Sports Spectacle, published in 2006; Native Dancer came out in 2003. The two works share an abiding respect for racing history and a talent for smooth storytelling; the focus in The Great Match Race is on an event surrounded by individuals, while Native Dancer is about individuals surrounded by events.

You can see Native Dancer’s Derby here, along with footage of the Dancer in retirement and a brief discussion of his progeny. I am not much of a sentimentalist, but sitting on the Brooklyn Promenade finishing the book, I felt a certain poignancy in the Dancer’s retirement in 1954 and death in 1967. I wished that I’d had a chance to see him run and to witness the spell that he cast over the U.S. during his three-year career, and I wistfully considered what it might be like for a horse to capture our imagination to this extent today. A beneficiary of a confluence of culture, history, and technology, much like Seabiscuit, Native Dancer was a once-in-a-lifetime horse. Too bad it wasn’t our lifetime.

2 thoughts on “Book review: John Eisenberg’s Native Dancer

  1. I recently finished the book and your link to the Native Dancer footage was an added bonus, thanks!! I live not very far from Sagamore Farm in Baltimore Co. so I found “Native Dancer” interesting more for its descriptive history of A.G. Vanderbilt and the, once vibrant, Maryland Thoroughbred industry. Before I was a fan of racing I would go down Belmont Rd. past Sagamore Farm and not give the place a second glance. After reading about The Dancer I really must go by and pay a visit to his grave.

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