This feature appeared in the Oct. 25 issue of Blood-Horse magazine, but because of all the recent negative comments about Bayern and his controversial Classic, I thought it would be an appropriate time to share this story about Gate Dancer, arguably the most disrespected and under-appreciated horse in the past 30 years. If there was ever a stewards’ decision that should have created a controversy it was the disqualification of Gate Dancer from second in the first ever Breeders’ Cup Classic.
By Steve Haskin
One of racing’s most indelible images is that of jockey Pat Day raising his cap to the heavens following his heart-pounding victory aboard 31-1 shot Wild Again in the inaugural Breeders' Cup Classic in 1984.
What made that scene so profound was that it secured the success of the Breeders’ Cup as a high-drama event that could reach out to the American public on an emotional level. What also made the race so unforgettable was the defeat of budding superstar Slew o’ Gold, and his jockey, Angel Cordero, taking up sharply in between horses during the three-horse stretch battle.
But that is not where the drama of the ’84 Classic ends. There was another participant in that race who has pretty much been forgotten over the past 30 years. And when people do mention the name of Gate Dancer, it is usually for dubious reasons. This harlequin of a horse is remembered for his odd-looking hood and earmuffs, his erratic running, and finding different ways to lose a race, and for being the only horse in history to be disqualified in the Kentucky Derby and the only horse to be disqualified in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Gate Dancer ran a sensational race in the Classic to be beaten a head, while finishing a half-length ahead of Slew o’ Gold. Although his disqualification from second to third has become nothing more than a footnote in history, the questions still persist from those who witnessed the race.
Was Gate Dancer used as a scapegoat because of his reputation and that fact that he had already been disqualified from fourth to fifth in the Kentucky Derby? Did his hood and earmuffs, which no one had even seen before, make him an easy target? There was no doubt in the Sport of Kings that Gate Dancer was the court jester.
To this day, many who have watched the head-on replay of the Classic insist Gate Dancer did nothing wrong and that it was Wild Again who kept bearing out and was the real culprit. But to disqualify the first winner of the Classic was the last thing the Breeders’ Cup needed to ensure its future success. And because Slew o’ Gold was such a major star and the 3-5 favorite, some action needed to be taken, even though Cordero knew he was beaten by the eighth pole and embellished the incident by abruptly snatching up his horse.
So, history will record that the inaugural Classic was a rousing success that provided one of the greatest stretch battles of all time, a gusty longshot winner, a shocking defeat of the odds-on favorite, and a disqualification. And Day bringing the race to an ethereal level by saluting the heavens gave it the perfect final touch.
But what about Gate Dancer and the nefarious reputation he has carried for so many years? Lost in all the drama was the fact that the son of Sovereign Dancer – Sun Gate, by Bull Lea, was an exceptional, but hard-luck, racehorse, who not only earned over $2.5 million in his career, he captured the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), breaking the stakes and track record, while winning and placing in 12 grade I stakes.
To demonstrate what a hard-luck horse Gate Dancer was, few people remember that he also finished second, beaten a head, in the following year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic when jockey Chris McCarron hit the front too soon on him and he was nailed right on the wire by Proud Truth. He also finished second, beaten a neck by champion Chief’s Crown, in the Marlboro Cup (gr. I). He did come out on the winning end of the grade I Super Derby when he staged a powerful stretch rally to beat Hall of Famer Precisionist by a nose in 2:00 1/5, again breaking the track record.
Gate Dancer also finished second in such major stakes as the grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup and San Felipe Handicap and grade II Oaklawn Handicap, and third in the grade I Santa Anita Handicap, Charles H. Strub Stakes, Widener Handicap, and San Fernando Stakes. He took his act everywhere, from New York to California, and from Arkansas, Florida, and Louisiana in the south to Nebraska in the Midwest, winning or placing in all of them.
He finished ahead of major stars such as Swale, Chief’s Crown, Slew o’ Gold, Precisionist, Turkoman, Vanlandingham, Track Barron, and Crème Fraiche, while finishing right behind Greinton, Wild Again, Proud Truth, and Lord at War.
But his credentials often go overlooked, superseded by his reputation. For example, in an article on the Oklahoma website “NewsOK,” Gate Dancer was referred to as a “certified nut,” and that if he were a person “he would have been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.”
Gate Dancer’s trainer, Hall of Famer Jack Van Berg, knows better and has had to listen to people disrespecting his horse all these years.
At a recent book signing at Kentucky Downs for his biography, “Jack: From Grit to Glory,” Van Berg was joined by Pat Day.
“Someone asked Pat how come he didn’t hit Wild Again in the Classic,” Van Berg said. “Pat said, ‘He was giving me all he had and I felt I had God on my side.’ I got up and said, ‘Pat, let me tell you a little secret. You not only had God on your side, you had the three stewards on your side, too'.”
Van Berg added, “They should have moved that horse up, not down. That was one of the worst calls in history. Cordero was trying to put Wild Again against the fence and Wild Again was bearing out so bad. I tell everybody, it’s like a bank robber who went straight and didn’t rob any more banks, but he was walking by one during a robbery and they arrested him because of his reputation.
“There were probably 35 reporters around the morning after the Classic and I probably saved the stewards from getting lynched. Every reporter said it was the worst call they’d ever seen. But big dumb ass me, I had to be nice to the Breeders’ Cup because it was the very first one, so I didn’t do anything.”
One of Gate Dancer’s biggest fans who could recognize the horse’s talents was the legendary Johnny Longden.
“Longden gave him the best compliment,” Van Berg said. “He said If he had been riding him he never would have gotten beat. He loved that horse.
“He deserved a lot more credit than he ever got. People forget he not only won the Preakness, he set a new track record.”
What often got Gate Dancer in trouble was his competitive spirit, which would cause him to get a bit aggressive at times.
“He wasn’t tough to train,” Van Berg said. “He was just a very competitive horse. When we were in New York for the 1985 Breeders’ Cup, them pigeons would be walking in the shedrow and he’d try to stomp on them. If you were walking him and leaned up against him and pushed on him and played with him, he’d put you up against the wall.
“But as far as galloping him, once we put those earmuffs on him he was not hard to train at all. Eddie Delahoussaye had told me he was listening to things from the grandstand. I had seen those earmuffs in Argentina when I was down there. I never liked putting cotton in a horse’s ears, because I never liked cotton in my ears when I had an ear ache as a kid, so I figured instead of cotton I’d put a sponge in there for his ears and put the muffs over them. After I did, Eddie was too embarrassed to ride him with those earmuffs on him. He said he looked like a bunny rabbit. I had a lady make them and she did a great job with them. If she was still around I’d put them on every horse I have.”
Gate Dancer was bred in Florida by William R. Davis and owned by Kenneth Opstein, an insurance executive from Sioux City, Iowa. Opstein had been looking to purchase a Sovereign Dancer colt and heard about one for sale at Davis’ Dixieland Farm. But when he got there, he was taken by another Sovereign Dancer, who was a sturdy colt with markings similar to Sovereign Dancer’s sire Northern Dancer and was available for $65,000. One of Van Berg’s assistants, Bill Mook, was trying to buy another Sovereign Dancer at the time for $15,000 and suggested they purchase both as a package. So, Opstein wound up with his Sovereign Dancer colt, who had already been named Gate Dancer.
“He worked really good as a 2-year-old in Omaha and won his first race but he was a little erratic,” Van Berg recalled. Gate Dancer had developed a habit of lugging in and running with his head high in the air. Van Berg equipped him with a “Ramblin Road” bit that his father Marion had success with. But Gate Dancer would still cock his head toward the grandstand and kept lugging in. That’s when Delahoussaye said he thought the noise from the grandstand was bothering him and when Van Berg first decided to use the hood and sponge earmuffs.
But in the Kentucky Derby, Gate Dancer kept laying all over Fali Time and the stewards disqualified him from fourth. He actually ran a good race to finish fourth behind Swale after a terrible start from a terrible post, which encouraged Van Berg for the Preakness.
“He fell out of the 20 hole and I’ve always said if Eddie Delahoussaye had gotten to the fence and just sat on him he would have won the Derby,” Van Berg said. “Ronnie Warren’s horse (Coax Me Chad) galloped around there on the inside and finished second. He had to circle everybody and he was the kind of horse who only wanted to run the last quarter mile or five-sixteenths. He could catch a horse like a ropin’ horse catchin’ a calf.”
Gate Dancer finally put it all together in the Preakness, saving ground early and racing much closer to the pace. He moved up along the inside, then swung out and collared the leaders, including Swale, nearing the three-sixteenths pole before drawing clear to win by 1 1/2 lengths in 1:53 3/5, breaking Canonero II’s existing track record by two-fifths of a second.
Gate Dancer continued to compete at the highest level for the next year and a half, suffering another tough defeat in the following year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“Chris (McCarron) made way too quick a move on him that day,” Van Berg said. “I told him, “Don’t let that s.o.b. run too quick, because then he goofs around.’ He was on the lead at the quarter pole and just got caught at the wire. He ran against a lot of good horses; a lot better than they’re running against today, I can tell you that.
“He was a really good horse and he never got the credit he deserved. If it weren’t for a couple of photos in the two Breeders’ Cups and a few other close finishes in big races he could have been the top money winner. Between his two photos in the Classic and Alysheba getting beat a nose in 1987, I was three noses from getting out of debt.”
Gate Dancer was retired to Good Chance Farm near Ocala, Florida and later was moved to Silverleaf Farm, also in Florida. He sired 27 stakes winners, but on March 6, 1998, he lost a long battle with laminitis and was euthanized at age 17.
Gate Dancer was misunderstood and never given the respect he deserved. But no one could deny the horse was talented, sound, game, and tough. As for Jack Van Berg, he also had never been given the respect he deserved. Despite his record number of wins he was considered nothing more than a claiming trainer. That is until Gate Dancer came along and placed him in the national spotlight for the first time in his career. It is in that spotlight where Gate Dancer should also be placed.