The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame has announced
the selection of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt to be inducted into the
Pillars of the Turf category
Through his contributions to Thoroughbred racing that resonate to this day, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, 1912-1999, was one of the architects of the golden years of racing spanning the 20th century. The young man who devised the match race of the century between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, and whose homebred Native Dancer influences the pedigrees of Thoroughbreds to this day, became a horseman accepted as a peer by the finicky and fickle population that makes up horse racing.
Whereas Vanderbilt had to earn his racing stripes one at a time, outside of the track milieu his own pedigree from a storied American family gave him advantages in terms of access and wealth. A great-great-grandson of transportation and shipping magnate Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, young Alfred lost his father in 1915 when the Lusitania sank. As an adult, one week might find Vanderbilt sitting outside the Dancer’s stall shooting the breeze with Lester Murray, Dancer’s groom. The next week he might be on safari with Ernest Hemingway.
As a teenager, the racing bug sank its bite into Vanderbilt and never let go. At 21, he was given his mother’s racing stable and its horse farm base in Maryland, Sagamore Farm. Racehorses raised at Sagamore include Native Dancer, Find, Bed o’ Roses and the memorably named Social Outcast. Vanderbilt’s cerise and white silks were immediately recognizable out on the track and in the winners’ circle. Those silks were last seen as his homebred filly Opening Address was sent out alone to gallop over the Aqueduct track as part of Vanderbilt’s memorial service in December 1999.
Vanderbilt’s involvement in racing went far beyond being an owner-breeder. He had a knack for racecourse management and brought his skills to Pimlico, the Westchester Racing Association − the precursor of the New York Racing Association (NYRA). He was chair of the board and CEO of NYRA for four years. Early on in his racing career, Vanderbilt was dissatisfied with the starting procedures of racing so he developed the starting gate; at the other end of a race, Vanderbilt pioneered the use of a photo-finish camera.
In August 1963, Vanderbilt was featured in a Sports Illustrated cover story that outlined his concerns about where racing was headed and what was needed to remedy the situation. The points made in the article concerning industry leadership and uniform standards are as relevant today as they were 52 years ago.
One of Vanderbilt’s roles outside of racing was as an advocate for veterans. He served as a lieutenant on a PT boat in the Pacific in World War II, earning a Silver Star for gallantry. After the war, he was the head of the World Veterans’ Fund.