Alfred Vanderbilt

   Alfred Vanderbilt enjoyed playing tennis with me. The reason he enjoyed it is that he was a very bad tennis player, and he sought the company of others of equal ability. I fit the bill. He liked ladiesin every sense of the word, I'm sureso it was usually mixed doubles at Saratoga. Typical of Alfred it suited him to play at public courts rather than the tonier Saratoga Golf and Polo Club, where very stylish grass courts were available.

   While the Vanderbilt name is synonymous with heavy brassstupendous wealth, Alfred never seemed terribly aware of it. If he was important, he was not absorbed with it. He was nice enough looking, with a casual, slouchy way about him. His countenance bore no hint of exuberance, and if he was burning with enthusiasm on some project (and he often was) you could not tell it. His pedigree was staggering; if he had been a yearling he would have definitely been a cinch for the select session of the sale. On the top he was New York Central Railway. On the bottom, Bromo-Seltzer.

Alfred Vanderbilt 1955

Vanderbilt with Arthur Godfrey in 1955

   When he was 21, his mother gave him a nice present:  the 600-acre Sagamore Farm (and 50 horses) in the lovely rolling hills of Maryland. From then on he dedicated his life to horse racing, and he made a monumental impact on the game. He made no bones about ithe simply adored every aspect of Thoroughbred racing. He devoted his energy to the farm, the breeding, training, racing; and also to the running of great racetracks and many of the important organizations of racing. He never wavered from his dedication to the sportrepeat sportof racing horses. He once said, "I have this wonderful feeling about racing. It's not just that I love horses. I'm like the person who goes to the circus and falls in love with the whole show, not just the elephants."

   Alfred Vanderbilt in his day was probably the most respected man in the racing industry of North America.

   He bred and campaigned one of the five greatest horses that ever lived. Native Dancer was undefeated except for when Eric Guerin got him in a blind switch and lost the 1953 Kentucky Derby. He also had Discovery, Next Move, Bed O'Roses, Find, Social Outcast, North Sea and many other slightly lesser lights.

   He was long-time head of NYRA, operating those three race tracks while simultaneously resuscitating and popularizing semi-moribund Pimlico. His presidency breathed life into that old place by staging the wonderful War Admiral-Seabiscuit match race. A controversial but logical move was to remove the picturesque hill in the middle of the racetrack, so people could see the races. He was the first racetrack operator to introduce the photo finish camera and the electrically operated starting gate. All of this, mind you, when he was in his twenties. His racetrack managerial career was interrupted by World War II, during which Alfred joined the Navy, captained a PT Boat and was decorated for bravery. After the war, he resumed his career.

    He was a clever, impish, whimsical, interesting  man, and he attracted such diverse pals as Oscar Levant, George Abbott, Ernest Hemingway, Hal Prince, Fred Astaire, the Duke of Windsor, and a wide variety of characters in every walk of life. He was comfortable in his own skin. For example, he once made an indelible impression on me when I spied him at a typically frenetic cocktail party in Saratoga. We all know that it is absolutely essential that at a cocktail party you must never be caught without someone to talk to. Unthinkable that you would not be screaming at someone! Not with Alfred. At one point I can see him, with his back to the crush of revelers, simply standing by himself staring out a window. He would have been glad to talk but it was not important either way.

   One day in the crowded paddock at Saratoga, he took great pleasure in pointing out to a friend (the Secretary of the Treasury at the time) that he had a hole in the seat of his pants. Conceivably this story is apocryphal, but when jockey Ted Atkinson was about to ride a Vanderbilt long shot in a mile and three-quarter race, Alfred showed up in the paddock with a sandwich, a flashlight and a compass, commenting, "It may be dark before you get back."

Alfred Vanderbilt 1965

   His later years literally proved dark for him. A degenerative eye disease made him close to blind. While he was losing his sight, his son was killed in a mountaineering accident. And Alfred was discouraged with the way racing was trending. Still, he kept a few horses, and each morning his driver took him to the racetrack for training. He stood on the apron and heardnot sawhis horses go by. He could hardly distinguish a large object. If I passed him I would say, "Good morning Alfred. It's Cot Campbell." He could then come back with a greeting.

   But late in the game he got "Derby Fever." He had some horses with trainer Mary Eppler, and he asked her to go to the sales and buy a colt "that could win the Derby." She made a good try. She bought a colt and Alfred named him Traitor. He won the Futurity and was placed in the Champagne. The racing world got excited that a Vanderbilt horse finally would complete that which Native Dancer soughtand deserved. Alas, he did not get to the Derby.

   Alfred Vanderbiltwhose birth was announced on the front page of the New York Times in 1912died in 1999. He passed while dressing for a trip to the racetrack. He was going there to sit while the races took place.


Leave a Comment:


Hello note that he was affectionally called... had an affinity for the females...however you failed to mention that he had an long relationship w/Robin Smith whom was riding for him in New York@ that time and was winning some nice races for for him....After they went separate ways..never married though..she eventually dated Fred Astaire..whom you mention...she relocated to the left coast and they did marry and Robin was w/him when he passed away.....thanx

27 Aug 2013 11:49 AM
Saratoga AJ

He was truly a great man in the history of Racing. And a patriotic American, for with all his money he surely could have avoided going into the Service in WWII. Instead he volunteered.

"The acorn doesn't fall far from the tree" as they say. His Father,

Alfred G. Vanderbilt Sr., died a hero when he gave his life jacket to a stranger, a pregnant women, during the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 even though he could not swim.    

27 Aug 2013 12:58 PM
Bethany Loftis

Thanks Mr. Campbell for sharing this wonderful story! I knew Vanderbilt had done a lot for racing and read several stories about his horses, but I had no idea just how much he had done. He certainly sounds like quite the character as well! You're so lucky to have the fortune to meet such wonderful people, and we are so lucky we have you to share your stories with us! Thank you so much! Your time is greatly appreciated!

P.S-Good luck to you in your journey with Palace Malice! He's certainly a treasure :)

27 Aug 2013 8:30 PM
Old Old Cat

This brought tears to my eyes.  you are a great story teller.  Thank you.  We trained horses at Sagamore in the 1990's.  A wonderfully designed barn with southern exposure for all the stalls, double looped with an indoor training track.  On the outside track I got to sit up in the clocker's tower and watch the horses train.  A wonderful time.  I enjoyed looking at the old Timonium sales books with the notations for the ones that Alfred Vanderbilt bought.

Your story brought the man back to life for me.

28 Aug 2013 11:31 AM
The Deacon

As good as Native Dancer was I certainly do not believe he was one of the top 5 all time greats.

Great story Mr. Campbell

28 Aug 2013 11:34 AM

loved the story.  I visited Sagamore Farm with my dad when they had the Maryland Farm tour, long ago. I wanted so badly to see Native Dancer but saw Northern Dancer. I was sad but now as an adult, I am glad I was able to see him. The farm was beautiful then, clean, red and white, it was a dream place to me.  I think I was eight years old.

28 Aug 2013 11:50 AM

Alfred Vanderbilt - A true champion of the turf and of the little guy, the $2 dollar bettor. Growing up in Brooklyn in a neighborhood of racetrackers, just about everyone of age was a fan of Al. Although I never experienced it, some of the others, a little older, did. Wondering how they could accept the punishment of not only losing money, but also the raw, miserable New York weather in the spring and fall, he would occasionally venture down to the "lawn" and mingle, asking what could be done to make them more comfortable. When Aqueduct was winterized years later during his tenure as president of the NYRA, I'm sure it was not to promote winter racing. When that subject was discussed he would say he was opposed to it, the racetrackers as well as the horses needed a break. Further, they needed a little time to save a few bucks for the holidays.

Native Dancer's failure to win the Derby was the most shocking disappointment I experienced as a racing fan. The memory of that day still hurts.  Not only did Al not criticize Guerin's ride, he continued using him as his go-to jock. Years later, in the sixties. when Guerin seldom got a ride, for among other reasons, making the weight, when he did it was always on a Vanderbilt horse. He, no doubt, had been working these horses in the morning and probably not for the few bucks a head that prevailed at the time. Al probably kept him on the payroll in one capacity or another, perhaps until his passing.

When he took a hiatus from racing to head the Veterans Administration for a couple of years, at a $1 per, he disbanded his stable. Instead of disposing of his stock via the auction route, he unloaded those that he could by dropping them in claiming races. This not only delighted the bettors who more or less were given a sure thing, it also gave the small time owner/trainer an opportunity to acquire a quality horse at a bargain price.

In view of the above, how could any racing fan who knew anything about him, not be a fan of his also.

28 Aug 2013 11:58 PM
Saratoga AJ

How much higher than #7 on the all time list would Native Dancer be if not for that terrible trip in the '53 Derby? Think of that...retire as an undefeated (22 of 22) Triple Crown Winner?

Not to mention his impact as a sire through Raise A Native and Mr. Prospector on the male side, and his daughter Natalma, dam of Northern Dancer. Considering both his racing record and impact on the breed, he may be second to only

Man O' War.

29 Aug 2013 12:32 PM
Saratoga AJ

One more jump and the Dancer would have been the only undefeated Triple Crown winner in history.

(It should be noted Seattle Slew was undefeated when he won the Crown in '77, but subsequently lost 3 races)  

29 Aug 2013 12:43 PM
Saratoga AJ

One more jump and the Dancer would have been the only undefeated Triple Crown winner in history.

(It should be noted Seattle Slew was undefeated when he won the Crown in '77, but subsequently lost 3 races)  

29 Aug 2013 12:45 PM
Grande Fan

I always enjoy a great story of racing's golden years - especially when told by one who was there. I have a framed copy of the Times cover featuring a rendering of the great Native Dancer and the wrenching derby story. Thank you, Cot. Any plans to "train" future authors to record today's great stories?

29 Aug 2013 5:42 PM
Love 'em all

Mr. Campbell, read this story Wednesday ... but I won't tell how many times I've read it since then!  You really are a good storyteller ... and teacher; I learn so much from your interesting stories.  

As most know, CNN's Anderson Cooper's mother, Gloria, and AGV were first cousins.  Quite an interesting family history, to say the least.  Any Vanderbilt family members out there who are racehorse lovers?  Without a doubt, AGV was certainly one of horse racing's best friend and contributor.  

I liked his sense of humor too!  Whether the paddock story about the jockey and the long shot was true or not, that was too funny!  Thanks for sharing such a delightful read.

30 Aug 2013 4:25 PM

Thank you for the story about Mr Vanderbilt.  Wish I would have known him and wish I could have seen Native Dancer but unfortunately he was before my time.  He is however, my all time favorite horse!    The Deacon: Native Dancer should not be just in the top five - he should easily be number ONE!  Have you researched him and his amazing accomplishments at all?  I urge everyone who has not read either of the two excellent books about him to start there -  he was an incredible horse.   Saratoga AJ: I have always felt that Native Dancer didn't get the credit he deserved because of that one loss.  I sure wish he had won that race!  But he has made probably the biggest impression on the breed that has ever been seen considering that it has been estimated that his blood runs through about 70% of racehorses today. I know you can hardly find a stakes winner that does not trace to him in at least one line!  AMAZING!

30 Aug 2013 9:15 PM
Fortune Pending

Wonderful, wonderful.  Sagamore and Mr. Vanderbilt are part of the heart of racing.  I love reading these remembrances.

02 Sep 2013 7:52 PM

Dropping those horses into claimers

is that what the $2 player wants an

odds on price ?  Remember Find was

running in cheap claimers at Pomona

an ex-stakes winner like that,was

terrible. He was as good as any gelding, take away Kelso.......

03 Sep 2013 10:36 AM
The Deacon

Racingfan: Actually I have read those books about the Dancer. I wouldn't argue he was great but not in my top 5. Racing is about opinions, my prerequisite for greatness is based upon a horse carrying weight, brilliant at many distances and on many different tracks. Also setting track and world records.

My top 5 in no particular order were Spectacular Bid, Dr. Fager, Man O War, Secretariat, and Swaps.

Throw in Damascus, Buckpasser, Ruffian, Native Dancer and Kelso. That is my top 10.

I admire the fact you love this horse, it's what racing is about.......

04 Sep 2013 4:03 AM
The Doctor

The Deacon: Excellent choice with your top 10, I would certainly replace Damascus with Citation, but the others  definitely deserve there rankings! Sorry to all of the Zenyatta fans.

05 Sep 2013 2:20 PM
The Deacon

I thought about Citation by Bull Lea and I do think he was a great horse but what bothers me a little about him is that he never won a race carrying 130 lbs.  He also couldn't beat Noor by Nasrullah, losing 4 of 5 races to him. Noor did set track and world records also.

Citation ran 45 times and won 32. He was a better race horse at age 3 and 4.

Selecting all time greats is subjective at best. I would take Buckpasser off the list before Damascus.  Damascus beat Buckpasser in the 1967 Woodward and he was 3 years old and Buckpasser was 4.

If Racingfan loves Native Dancer who lost only 1 race, how does he leave Zenyatta off his all time great list. She lost only 1 race.

05 Sep 2013 7:28 PM

The Deacon:  you are certainly correct that we all have our opinions about the ranking of the great horses. And since there is no way to actually know, all we can do is speculate and love them all.  Zenyatta is certainly in my top 10 but Native Dancer owns my heart.

FYI:  Citation did not race at 4. He won 27 of 29 races at 2 and 3 but was injured at the end of his 3 year old year. He then raced 16 times at 5 and 6, winning only 5 of those.  He was never the same after his injury. He was however, unplaced only ONCE in his 45 races.  

07 Sep 2013 9:48 AM
Old Timer

nice story. I still have your book about Summer Squall on my shelf.

Best regards and good luck!

07 Sep 2013 10:48 AM
The Deacon

Racingfan:  Native Dancer owns your heart and that is in itself my point.

No shame in loving a fine animal, especially a race horse.

07 Sep 2013 11:59 PM

Even if the story about Ted Atkinson isn't really true, it's a good one.

What a shame that one commenter thought this was an appropriate place to run down Native Dancer. Even if one doesn't agree that he was top five all-time, surely there are better times to argue that subject!

10 May 2014 10:23 PM

Recent Posts

Recommended Reading

More Blogs