2017-05-20 / Columnists


‘Camptown Races’ – How Do the Gray Horses Fare?

This year’s Kentucky Derby field was awash with chestnutcolored horses, light bay horses, and dark bay ones, but only two who were gray. Yet in almost every Kentucky Derby, there have been gray horses that have been entered and run. Always the percentage of them has been small. Top three place wins for this group are low. The latest Triple Crown winner in 2015 was American Pharaoh, and he was a bay. Bay horses usually win big races. According to ancient legend, a gray horse, particularly a mare, was sought for beauty. The Arabians considered a horse that was a dark brown to be the swiftest of all horses. They would take higher pride in a racing bay. Chestnuts were a source of envy for speed. Many of us remember a horse called Secretariat as the most “classic” of all racehorses, big, and bold. He was fiery red in color, not a gray horse.

Is there anything that sets a gray Thoroughbred apart from any other racehorse? Not really, except that when it comes to an abundance of track records, theirs seems to be the color group that is missing. In the sport of harness racing, where a horse trots at a full pace pulling a sulky (small wagon) driven by a jockey, their odds are better. The same holds true for steeplechasing and turf racing. When we picture that classic Thoroughbred carrying a small jockey on his back and running around a flat track, it is a picture of a brown, black, or red horse wearing that blanket of flowers in the winner’s circle.

To this date, there has been no series of pure white racing Thoroughbreds in the history of the Kentucky Derby. Nor have there been winning racers in either the Preakness, Belmont, or the Derby, who were blonde, or what we call Palomino. The bays predominate. For readers unfamiliar with the term “bay,” that refers to the body color of a horse that can range in shades of light brown to almost black, with dark black legs, mane, and tail.

Pure Thoroughbred racehorses can all be traced by their lineage. These horses are descended from the three Arabian stallions that were brought to England in the 1700s. They were the Darley Arabian, the Godolphin Arabian, and the Byerly Turk. All were dark brown horses. Gray is a recessive gene, and that means for a horse to bear that color, one or both of its parents must be gray. In the 20th century, one of the international key breeders in the racing world was Frederico Tesio. He was an Italian who devoted his life to shaping our modern day attitudes toward Thoroughbred racers. He strongly felt gray horses were inferior. In Tesio’s view, this was based on genetics. In his book, “Breeding the Race Horse,” Tesio’s opinions are that gray horses are weaker than their bay or chestnut counterparts in track speed, as well as health. It is true that gray horses are much more susceptible to skin cancers (melanomas) as they age. Yet, a racehorse is in his “prime” (from age three to five) has rarely developed skin cancers. I do not feel that should be a factor. Nevertheless, there is a lot of superstition in the horse world. That prejudice stuck, and it stayed.

It is interesting to realize that all three of those foundation stallions at one time or another covered (bred with) grey mares. In the history of racing, a few among that gray-looking stock did outperform the competition of bays, chestnuts, and blacks. It appears the most successful gray racers came from Thoroughbred lines that developed in France. A gray stallion named Chanticleer was the stud for several fast grays. He was born in 1843.

The gray color was carried to a great-grandson named Tetrarch. He was one of the most successful racers of 1911. The stallion was gangly, with odd white spots and even black spots on his coat. Some gray Thoroughbred descendants today still carry this polka dot characteristic. Another strong and swift gray racer was Roi Herode. He was the sire of a beautiful, swift, gray filly named La Grisette, who had success in 1915. She is best known for being the grandmother of Native Dancer. Native Dancer is perhaps the most famous gray racehorse in the world. This Kentucky gray horse was also known by many throughout America as “The Gray Ghost.” He won just about every one of his races in the early 1950s. While he was second in the Derby, in 1953 he won both the Belmont and the Preakness. In fact, the Kentucky Derby was the only loss of his 22-race career. In 1954, they named this gray “Horse of the Year.”

I think part of the appeal of Native Dancer was the fact that he was one of the first horses that was winning races when national television was sweeping the country. Native Dancer had the added plus to his popularity because that gray coat was so distinctive on television. A person’s eyes immediately focused on him, or so they say. He was a stunning horse to look at, and he was a winner. Important lineage from him as a grand sire (who were mostly bays) included Majestic Prince, Alydar, and Mr. Prospector, all of whom were bred by Native Dancer’s equally famous colt, Raise a Native.

Moving into the 1970s through the early 2000s, there were few winning gray Thoroughbreds, but they were on the short list. Spectacular Bid won the Derby in 1979. Another was Black Tie Affair, in 1991, and Skip Away, in 1998. There was the successful gray Holy Bull, who had an even better career after racing as a stud. Even so, the results pale in comparison to bays and chestnuts.

In 2007, I was fortunate enough to see Bob Bafert’s Silver Charm race, and win, at Churchill Downs. Silver Charm won another jewel that year in the Preakness Stakes, but lost the Belmont Stakes. He went on to win in the Breeders’ Stakes and the Dubai World Cup. He stood at stud in Japan for several years. “The Charm” was brought back to Kentucky in 2014, and (as current as this column), he is still retired and can be visited at Old Friends Farm.

Mahamoud is another famous gray racehorse that also influenced winners in the sport of turf and track racing. Cozzen is a famous one in that area. Timber racing, which is very close to steeplechasing, has many gray horses that excel in that field. These include One Man, Rooster Booster, and Desert Orchid. The latter was born in England, in the late 1970s. He was considered to be the best “National Hunt” race of all time. A gelding, Desert Orchid, broke all kinds of records. He was one of those horses that was beloved by a whole country.

As it turns out, a gray horse can be as fast, or faster, than any other horse. True, the successful ones are few and far between, but when they win, they win big. But a gray horse has the ability to win a heart without many hurdles, just because he is gray.

Candice Dunnigan is a resident, writer, and equestrian on Mackinac Island. She belongs to various national and local equine organizations.

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