February 1, 2010

Remembering ... Gate Dancer

He was called a crazy horse and a nut job. He had one of the best trainers in America, Jack Van Berg, scrambling to find a way to keep him running straight in the stretch. He bounced from jockey to jockey in hopes of finding one that could handle him. He was equipped with blinkers, a tongue tie, a shadow roll, a plastic burr was added to his bit, and most famously of all, he wore a hood with ear muffs to block out racetrack noises. When he stepped out on to the track, he was a sight to behold. He had a penchant for doing bizarre things, on the racetrack, he would often come running with all the look of a sure winner, only to search out contact and lean in on the horses he had been primed to roll right by. He was Gate Dancer.

Why would his connections put up with all this strange behavior? Simple…Gate Dancer could run. His trainer knew the talent was there, it was just a matter of bringing his ability to the fore. It was this talent that first attracted me to Gate Dancer in the Spring of 1984. To that point, he had been a promising and well bred colt who had been unable to win against the big boys, or girls for that matter. He was already known to insiders for his erratic behavior. While the Arkansas Derby winning filly, Althea, and the consistent Woody Stephens trainee, Swale were preferred in the Derby, I decided to back the interesting son of Sovereign Dancer and Sun Gate, breeding that made him a grandson of two of the greatest sires in American history in Northern Dancer and Bull Lea. The odds were right and he had the look of a horse who might soon be able to put it all together. In the Derby, Gate Dancer had drawn the far outside post position in the 20 stall. This position can be tough enough to overcome even with a good break. Gate Dancer did not break well. Stumbling out of the gate, he was quickly more than 20 lengths behind the large field. He would run on well to rally for 4th. If he did not lug in sharply, I am sure he would have gotten 2nd. He was disqualified (something they just don’t do in the Derby) and placed 5th for his transgression. My longshot selection did not pay off, but he ran a really good race all things considered. I looked forward to the Preakness and to give him another shot against the Derby winner Swale.

It finally would all come together for Gate Dancer in Baltimore. As most eyes were on Swale, Gate Dancer once again had his equipment fiddled with by Van Berg, still trying to control the high strung colt who was now known to the American public as a problem child, after his Derby DQ. Van Berg also switched riders, enlisting Angel Cordero, for his strength, and also for his eccentricities, that might fit Gate Dancer’s own quirkiness. In the Preakness, heavy favorite Swale ran poorly and faded well out of contention. Gate Dancer was much closer to the pace, then in the Derby, and he was full of run on the far turn. He collared leader Fight Over and easily pulled away to a 1 ½ length score over the late finishing Play On. Finally he had run without incident, and he won the middle jewel of racing’s Triple Crown. Final time of 1:53 and 3/5 was at the time, the fastest ever official time for the Preakness. Off this big score, he was sent to New York for a rubber match with the Derby winner. The Belmont would not be his day. In one of his few poor performances, Gate Dancer came up empty as the real running happened in the Belmont, and he finished a tired 6th. Swale, who would die mysteriously just days later, was an easy winner and became the clear leader of the division. Gate Dancer would have a great opportunity to overtake the ill-fated Swale with his final three starts of his sophomore season.

Following his disappointing run in the Belmont Stakes, Gate Dancer was given a rest and returned to where he began his racing career. The place was Ak-Sar-Ben Racetrack, where trainer Van Berg was a living legend. At home in Nebraska, he scored a dominating win in the Omaha Gold Cup. The Midwestern track would be the site of a win for Gate Dancer in each of his first three seasons. I always appreciated the fact that he continued to run at Ak-Sar-Ben after he became a star. The win in August set him up nicely for a run in one of the nation’s richest races, the Super Derby in Louisiana, where he faced the talented Hooper colt, Precisionist. In the Super Derby, Gate Dancer unleashed a furious stretch drive under new rider Laffit Pincay to just nip Precisionist in the final strides. He set a new track record for the mile and a quarter in the win. Next stop would be Hollywood Park and a little slice of history.

1984 would welcome the first ever Breeders’ Cup, and when the inaugural edition finally arrived, Gate Dancer was in prime form. He was the clear second choice to the dominant handicap horse in the nation, Slew O’ Gold. Slew O’ Gold had, for all intensive purposes, clinched year end honors as best horse, but a win by the hooded colt would surely clinch three-year-old honors. Ironically, in each leg of the Triple Crown, I supported Gate Dancer against a talented son of the great Seattle Slew. Now I was prepared to do it again, and this time against what was assumed to be an even tougher son of Slew. Slew O’ Gold was the prohibitive favorite in the field of eight. A talented son of Icecapade, named Wild Again, would set a solid pace under Pat Day. Slew O’ Gold was comfortable in a stalking position and Gate Dancer lagged behind near the back of the pack. As they straightened out, Slew O’ Gold had latched on to Wild Again and looked ready to take command, but Gate Dancer now had a full head of steam on the far outside. As the stretch battle ensued, it quickly became clear that Slew O’ Gold would not easily get by the longshot speed horse. This was good news to me, as Gate Dancer was gaining with every stride. He was ready to roll right by, when guess what…he lugged in. When he did it in the Derby, it was not the first time, and now with a win in the first Breeders’ Cup Classic within sight, he was doing it again. What happened next will go down forever as one of the best stretch battles in racing history. Wild Again with Pat Day fighting from the inside, Slew O’ Gold with Gate Dancer’s old friend, Angel Cordero, aboard, was sandwiched between horses, and the hooded one, with Pincay in the irons, on the outside. None of the three would give an inch as they ran in close quarters down the Hollywood Park lane. Wild Again would narrowly hold off Gate Dancer, as Cordero stood up on the beaten favorite just before the wire. A long objection was considered, and it was determined that Gate Dancer was the main offender in the bumping. He was disqualified and placed 2nd. Wild Again had won at 31-1, Breeders’ Cup history that would not have been the same without the quirky Gate Dancer.

As an older horse, Gate Dancer was even more of an enigma wrapped in a puzzle. Not so much in his antics, but more for running well without winning. Still donning his now famous hood, Gate Dancer toured the nation picking up good checks, but rarely winning. A few failed turf attempts and another win at Nebraska were his preparation for the major Fall races. Races that the experienced Van Berg would have him at his best for. He ran big in three consecutive races in the Big Apple, only to finish 2nd to three different horses. In the Marlboro Cup, it was champion Chief’s Crown holding him off by a neck. In the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Gate Dancer could not real in the quality front runner Vanlandingham, and for the second year in a row he would lose the BC Classic in a spirited battle. This time, he lost the big prize to Proud Truth by a head, as the two pulled clear of the others in the strong field. So close to glory in the first two runnings of the Classic, but alas, the masked marvel had very little to show for his efforts.

Gate Dancer finished his career with three more solid efforts as a five year old. Once again, he was running well but unable to hit the wire in front. His final statistics showed only 7 wins out of 28 starts. 15 times he finished in the money without winning. All these quality efforts helped him amass more than $2.5 million in earnings at the time of his retirement in early 1986.

Gate Dancer was retired to Florida, and stood at Good Chance Farm near Ocala, Florida. Later he was moved to Silverleaf Farm in Florida. He sired 27 stakes winners, but none had the talent of their sire. On March 6, 1998, after a long battle with laminitis, Gate Dancer was euthanized at the age of 17. I had a soft spot for this horse. The Preakness winner of 1984 was misunderstood and under appreciated, he rarely took home the big prize, but he was always entertaining and fun to root for. I always had the feeling that the next race would be the one where he would break through again. Gate Dancer is the only horse ever to be disqualified for interference in the Kentucky Derby and he repeated the feat in the Breeders Cup Classic. Adding to his mystique was the fact that he just didn’t look like any of the other horses with that hood. He was unique in every sense of the word. I remember you Gate Dancer.


LDP said...

He sounds like such an interesting horse. The way he always was running second to someone reminds me of Hard Spun and his qurikiness a bit of Tiznow, and how he was discribed. Ironiclly, he finished second two years in a row while Tiz won his two attmepts. It's good of you to recognize such a talented, yet forgotten horse. Nicely done Brian.

ja.raymond said...

'84 was my sophomore yr too, and I remember thinking of Gate Dancer: "If I didnt know any better, I'd say he was a son of Baldski! With all the other nice horses out there, why do they deal with his shenanigans?" Of course, I was still learning at that stage.
Still, I bet he would have settled down and done a lot better if they had cut him.

Brian Zipse said...

Thanks LDP, Gate Dancer was a couple of photos away from being a legend, especially since they were the first two runnings of the BC Classic

Brian Zipse said...

Breeding may have been the reason for that Jane, and besides he did win the Preakness as is.

Baldski, there's a name I have not heard in a while...talk about a well bred horse!

mvlach77 said...

I was a hotwalker at Aksarben when Gate Dancer would come to Omaha. I used to stop and watch when he would go to the track. By far he was the best horse to come to Nebraska and I was thrilled. His main challenger was a Wayne Lukas horse called Imp Society but he was not much of a challenge for the big horse. This was back in '83 and '84. Gate Dancer was big time for a huge racing fan in Omaha Nebraska.

Brian Zipse said...

Nice mvlach77! Imp Society was a nice horse, but you are right, Gate Dancer was too good for him. Another horse I liked a great deal won the Omaha Gold Cup two years before Gate Dancer, his name was Wavering Monarch. I finally got a chance to visit Ak-Sar-Ben in the early '90s. I liked the small town feel, and yes Van Berg was a hero there.

mvlach77 said...

Brian, that's great you got to visit Aksarben when it still existed. I miss it. I was a hotwalker there for three years during my college years.

I have another Gate Dancer story. A buddy and I traveled from Omaha to Ft. Lauderdale for Spring Break. On the way (I think it was Ocala) we saw a sign that said: "Good Chance Farms, Home of Preakness Winner, Gate Dancer." We took the exit and wound our way up a long road to the farm. Nobody was there at all and we walked around a bit, and guess what, we found Gate Dancer in his stall. We didn't open the stall but we petted him and took some pictures. As I look back, I'm surprised we could do that and not get in trouble, but it was a fun experience.