Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 66 Days to Go!

Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 66 Days to Go!

Dark Star was a brown colt by the Australian sire *Royal Gem II, out of the Bull Dog mare, Isolde. Bred by Warner L. Jones Jr., the owner of Hermitage Farm, Dark Star was from the first American crop of Royal Gem II, becoming his first winner in addition to his first stakes winner. Purchased by Jones for $100,000, Royal Gem II was shipped to America, with Jones picking him up at a San Francisco port. Jones had deep roots to Churchill Downs, where he became a director, as his great-great-great-grandfather John Churchill owned the land that became Churchill Downs.

As a yearling, he was sent to the 1954 Keeneland Summer Yearling Sale, at which point he was purchased for $6500 by Captain Harry F. Guggenheim’s Cain Hoy Stable. Guggenheim, who was the former ambassador to Cuba as well as the founder of Newsday, sent the colt to Moody Jolley, who trained Dark Star through October of his 2YO campaign. At 2, the youngster would finish 3rd in two stakes in New York, the Belmont Futurity and Juvenile Stakes, as well as winning the Hialeah Juvenile Stakes in Florida.

Trainer Eddie Hayward would take over the training duties in October of Dark Star. The British Columbia native got his start in racing as a jockey at 16, riding at the small Canadian tracks. Once his weight became an issue, he retired in 1927, and turned to training. Dark Star’s groom and exercise boy was Matty Brown, who became a valet later in life.

Starting out at three, Dark Star would win a sprint prior to coming in second to Money Broker in the Florida Derby. Traveling to Louisville, Dark Star would turn the tables, winning the Derby Trial over Money Broker.

The infamous 1953 running of the Kentucky Derby was a race that would be more remembered for who Dark Star would beat, rather than his winning of the race. Native Dancer, or “The Gray Ghost” as he was known, was one of the first television stars. At two, he had won all 9 of his races in impressive fashion, then at three, he would win the Gotham Mile and the Wood, receiving lots of media coverage in the process. The undefeated media darling was an overwhelming favorite to win the race, with his loss being on par with the Upset/Man O’ War defeat.

Dark Star went off as the fifth choice at 25-1 in the field of 11, breaking to the front, avoiding all of the trouble that would follow in one of the roughest run Derbies. Native Dancer would encounter trouble on the first turn where he was bumped, as all the horses were shuffled around. He did however manage to make up ground, being in fourth, only 2 ½ lengths from Dark Star after they passed the mile marker. As they reached the eighth mile pole, the “Gray Ghost” was still 1 ½ lengths behind, however he was beginning to gain ground on the tiring leader. As they came to the wire, Dark Star managed to hold off the late charge by Native Dancer to win by a head in 2:02. The crowd was stunned, as were the millions that watched from their homes. The loss would be the only one in Native Dancer’s 22 races.

In the Preakness, the race was unfolding exactly the same as the Kentucky Derby, with Dark Star carrying an easy lead on the front, when he suddenly started to fall back. Native Dancer would go on to win the race that would be the last of Dark Star’s career. He would finish fifth, however he would come out of the race with a badly bowed tendon that would lead to his retirement.

Dark Star would be retired with six wins, two seconds, and two thirds out of 13 races. He would first stand at Claiborne, then be moved to Spendthrift, prior to Guggenheim shipping his stallion to Haras de l’Orangerie in France. He sired 23 stakes winners including Iron Peg, My Dad George, French Oaks and 1000 Guineas winner Gazala, in addition to Kentucky Oaks winner, Hidden Talent.

One of the best quotes came from this Derby from John Lindblom:

“At Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, the wire is not just the place where the race ends, but a spot where, once a year, immortality begins.”

(Photo courtesy of Kentucky Derby Museum archives)

Rickelle  Nelson

Rickelle Nelson

Reservations Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum