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After too many days of rain the sun returned over Miami, and for Eric Guerin, who likes all the help he can get in sweating weight from his slim 48-year-old body, the warmth was welcome. Seated on an aluminum folding chair in front of the jockey quarters at Hialeah Park, Guerin watched a platoon of small men in multicolored silk uniforms parade past, and he spoke to a few. He had expected to ride in the second race that day, but his horse had been scratched, and for him there were no others. There had been one mount earlier in the week; none the week before. "Mounts are a little hard to come by right now," he said, his voice softened by his bayou background.
A race began and Guerin flipped open a program as he listened to the report over the track public-address system. The sun made him squint as he read, deepening the many lines in his weathered thin face. His hair is nearly as black as when he rode Native Dancer, but now there is some silver at the temples. And his nose, many times smashed from falls in a career that has spanned 32 years, seems out of place, as though someone had sculpted a sharply featured face but left the nose a large lump of clay. His eyes, like his voice, are soft, filled with patience.
For Eric Guerin it always comes down to that. Although by 1973 he had ridden 2,680 winners and his mounts had earned $17,125,718, on a May day 20 years ago he rode Native Dancer to second place in the Kentucky Derby and everything else became background music. It was the great gray colt's only loss in 22 races, and when a hero falls the public doesn't want violins, it wants to hear drums roll. Guerin has heard nothing but sticks on the snares ever since.
"I've grown used to it," he said. "I guess I've had maybe 2,000 interviews since, and every time it begins with, 'What about the Dancer and the Derby?' But I don't mind. To tell you the truth, I never get tired of talking about that horse. I guess he'll always be my favorite subject."
On that first Saturday of May in 1953 all had seemed right for Guerin and Native Dancer. Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt's powerful gray had bedeviled his rivals as he easily won his first 11 races, and if there was anything to beat him at Churchill Downs it would be triggered from a rifle rather than a starting gate. The horse was brutishly beautiful, with an explosive come-from-behind style that won races by a whisker and fans by the millions. He was also delightfully lazy and only went all out—his belly close to the ground, his awesome stride a full foot longer than that of Man o'War—in the closing moments when all seemed lost. He always stood out from the rest, and he became the country's first racehorse television star. Wherever he was stabled, sacks of fan mail flowed. When he was moved by train, fans appeared at every stop along the way.
"It's hard to explain how I felt about that horse," Guerin said. "I used to go to the barn, and I'd watch that gray horse and I'd get a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. I'm just sorry that every jockey didn't have the chance to ride him so they would all know how magnificent he really was."
The only other to ride Native Dancer was Eddie Arcaro, who, ironically, is on record as having said in mid-1953 that he didn't think Vanderbilt's ace was anywhere near as good as had been reported. "All Native Dancer has done," Arcaro said, "is go around beating the same horses, and most of the time carrying equal weight.... Would you call him a great horse?"
And then, just before the $112,600 American Derby at Washington Park, Guerin drew a 10-day riding suspension while winning with Porterhouse at Saratoga. It was to be the only time he would miss a ride on Native Dancer. "I almost cried," he said. "It wasn't the money; it was just the great thrill of riding him."
With Guerin out. Trainer Bill Winfrey went to Vanderbilt with two names: Arcaro and Teddy Atkinson. The millionaire owner, a man with a silver star won as a PT-boat officer in World War II, a keen sense of humor and a fondness for sloppy hats, ended up with the detractor, Arcaro. "Oh, oh," said Arcaro. "If I lose with him I'll be the biggest bum in the world." Then he took the Dancer on a trial spin and allowed, "He's a big powerful animal." At Washington Park officials canceled the show betting, prompting Columnist Red Smith to write in the New York Herald Tribune: "The sturdy old American virtues of avarice, stupidity and parsimony, qualities that have won for racetrack operators the warm affections which the public ordinarily reserves for pawnbrokers and dogcatchers, were gloriously exemplified...." (Washington Park officials, mindful of the $46,012 minus show pool Native Dancer had created earlier in the Preakness, ignored Mr. Smith.)