Racing

The King of Canada: Northern Dancer

On the evening of September 17, 1962, dozens of horsemen gathered just outside Toronto for the annual thoroughbred yearling sale at Windfields Farm. The farm’s owner, Canadian business tycoon E.P. Taylor, eschewed the traditional yearling auctions in favor of a no-haggle format. He set the price for each of his yearlings, selling half and keeping the rest for his blossoming racing stable.

Who could have imagined that one of the “keepers” that night would become the most important thoroughbred in modern history?

It was a time when Kentucky was the sole beating heart of North America’s thoroughbred industry, and while certainly not the only place to cultivate high class, the path to prominence ran through the fertile Bluegrass. Undaunted, Taylor was quickly carving out quite the business from his Ontario outpost.

Just a few years prior, Taylor purchased a broodmare named Lady Angela at auction in Newmarket, England, who was in foal to the prominent European sire Nearco. The colt was foaled at Windfields in the spring of 1954 to little fanfare, as American horsemen still largely viewed anything produced north of the border as inherently inferior. Taylor named the colt Nearctic, and watched him blossom into the 1958 Canadian Horse of the Year.

Nearctic’s on-track exploits would pale in comparison to his influence as a stallion, thanks to one particular colt, foaled at Windfields in 1961.

The bay colt, out of the Native Dancer mare Natalma, was hardly a standout, apart from his three white socks and lightning bolt blaze. For starters he was small, measuring not an inch more than 14 hands as a yearling and tipping the scales at a few bales short of a half ton. So it probably wasn’t a tremendous shock to Taylor when his $25,000 asking price for the colt failed to garner a nibble among local horsemen.

“Who wants a midget?” Quipped one of the trainers at the sale.

Of course, no one in attendance that night could have predicted this undersized colt would become the most influential thoroughbred of the 20th Century.

Off and running

Though slighted at the sale, there was something about the colt that drew Taylor in; he was spirited and often times hard to handle, but his precocity stood out from the rest of the crop. And while on the short side he was well-proportioned and scopey, so Taylor held out hope this colt could produce for the Windfields Stable. And so he was off to obtain his education in speed from Taylor’s in-house trainer, Horatio Luro.

It did not take long for Luro to recommend castrating his fiery new prospect, but Taylor ultimately opted against it, as one of his recent geldings had shown little improvement after the procedure. It would turn out to be perhaps the greatest ball save in sports history.

By August of 1963 the colt had a name, Northern Dancer, and a date with the starting gate at Ontario’s Fort Erie Race Track. It was a 5-1/2 furlong sprint on the turf for Canadian-bred juveniles. In the irons that day was a young apprentice named Ron Turcotte. Northern Dancer backed up Taylor’s faith immediately with push-button acceleration and a ready-made aptitude for kicking ass. Bouncing between Fort Erie and Woodbine, Northern Dancer won 7 of his 9 starts and was named Canada’s 2-year-old champion. It was quite clear there wasn’t anything in Canada that could keep up with the little bay rocket.

The Dancer and Luro at Keeneland, 1965. Courtesy of the Keeneland Library.

Triple Crown dreams

Northern Dancer continued his tear as a 3-year-old, venturing stateside and outgunning the “superior” Kentucky breds under the hold of the sport’s top jockey, Bill Shoemaker. Taylor’s homebred was squarely on the road to the Kentucky Derby. In the spring he won a pair of key Kentucky Derby preps, the Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes, but despite his impressive record, Northern Dancer still had plenty of doubters heading into the First Saturday in May. Count Shoemaker among them, as he opted to ride the west coast champion Hill Rise in the Kentucky Derby, who at nearly 16 hands literally looked down at his rival. That opened the door for Bill Hartack, who picked up the mount and never looked back.

With Hartack in the saddle, Northern Dancer stalked the pace and took over the lead in the stretch. Hill Rise and Shoemaker made a late charge on the outside, but the little colt dug in, and with his heart on full display, repelled Hill Rise to win the 1964 Kentucky Derby in a then-record time of 2:00 flat. (The record would stand for 9 years, when Secretariat, and a jockey named Turcotte, clocked in at 1:59.4 in 1973.)

The Canadian thoroughbred had officially arrived.

The Dancer (inside) holds off Hill Rise in the 1965 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. (AP)

Northern Dancer would go on to win the Preakness in comfortable fashion, and the reality of a Canadian-bred Triple Crown champion was but a mere mile and a half away. His connections knew the Belmont Stakes would be a tremendous test for their undersized colt, but with the sheer exuberance of a nation in his sails, perhaps he could will it home. Unfortunately, it was not to be, as Northern Dancer finished third in the Belmont. But there was no time for letdown; the Queen’s Plate beckoned.

Northern Dancer returned to Canada after the Belmont to prepare for the Queen’s Plate at Woodbine at the end of June. No horse had ever won the Kentucky Derby and the “Canadian Derby”, and who better to snap the streak then the mighty Northern Dancer? By this point the little-horse-that-could had reached national treasure status. Hockey-hysteria turned into horse-hysteria. The mayor of Toronto presented him with a key to the city (fashioned out of a carrot, of course), going as far as proposing a parade for their homespun hero, to which Taylor politely declined citing his horse’s high-strung nature.

For Canadians, Northern Dancer’s international success came at the perfect time, as author Kevin Chong explains in his book “Northern Dancer: The Legendary Horse That Inspired a Nation”:

“It was also a time before the maple leaf appeared on Canada’s flag, before ‘O Canada’ became the official national anthem,” Chong writes. “Canadians were more accustomed to coming in second. They were more resigned to being smaller than the other guy, to leading quieter, less dazzling lives than their southern counterparts. But that began to change with Northern Dancer. For him, we knew that the best Canadian could beat the best Americans.

“[The media] cast the colt into a Canadian figure, a four-legged warrior fighting valiantly against American tyranny.”

Fans packed Woodbine to the brim on Queens Plate Day in 1964, the Dancer’s victory practically a foregone conclusion. Sure enough, the Dancer delivered, crushing his rivals by nearly 8 lengths. Sadly, this would be the Dancer’s final bow on the racetrack. The following month, while preparing for the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, he suffered a tendon injury and was retired to the breeding shed. With 14 wins from 18 career starts and never worse than third, a Queen’s Plate to his name and Canada’s first Kentucky Derby champion in record setting fashion, Northern Dancer had cemented his status as an all-time great in a little less than two years on the track. But he was just getting started.

“Northern Dancer is the kind of colt who, if you saw him in your living room, you’d send for a trap and put cheese in it. He’s so little, a cat would chase him. But he’s so plucky there’s barely room in him for his heart. His legs are barely long enough to keep his tail off the ground. He probably takes a hundred more strides than anyone else, but he’s harder to pass than a third martini.”
Jim Murray, Los Angeles Times

The Kingmaker

Back at Windfields, Taylor set Northern Dancer’s stud fee at $10,000 and had no trouble filling the book for his superstar stallion. Those who put their faith in the yet unproven sire were rewarded almost immediately, as Northern Dancer’s first crop produced the likes of Viceregal, an undefeated champion juvenile who won the 1968 Sovereign Award as Canada’s Horse of the Year. The following year in 1969, Taylor shipped Northern Dancer down to his Windfields USA outpost in Maryland to meet the growing demand for a date with the Dancer, and upped his stud fee to $25,000 for a live foal.

In 1970, The Northern Dancer Effect reached Europe in the form of his son, Nijinsky II, who was out of 1962 Queen’s Plate winner Flaming Page, and a fellow Windfields homebred. Unlike his sire, Nijinsky II was purchased at the Windfields yearling sale in 1968 for $84,000, and under the conditioning of legendary Irish trainer Vincent O’Brien, became the first horse in 35 years to win the English Triple Crown. The success of Najinsky II put Northern Dancer at the top of the European sire list, while concurrently holding the top spot in North America, creating an all-out international fornicating frenzy like never before.

E.P. Taylor’s little Pride of Canada had become an international icon in the blink of an eye.

“He was the biggest little horse I ever met, both in body and in personality. Extraordinarily broad and muscular through the chest, his back seemed as broad and flat as a tabletop, but there was a deep ‘ram’s groove’ between his hindquarters. Forearm and gaskin flared with muscle, and though his legs were short, he was lengthy and perfectly balanced, with a long, beautifully arched neck.

If you knew Northern Dancer, though, the most striking thing about him was that he was, without the slightest doubt in his mind, the master of all he surveyed, and you had best never forget it. Always bright, friendly, and engaged, he nevertheless made it clear that he consented to follow your lead only because it was in his interest.”
John P. Sparkman, Daily Racing Form

As his progeny continued to pile up the accolades, Northern Dancer’s stud fee rose to unprecedented heights. $100,000…$200,000…$500,000…ultimately reaching a staggering $1,000,000—with no guarantees—by the early 80’s. A number of his foals would fetch cartoonish prices in the auction ring, as the world’s heavy horseplayers routinely engaged in seven (even eight)-figure bidding wars for the mere promise of the ‘Northern Dancer Type’.

Northern Dancer was eventually pensioned from his stallion duties in 1987 at age 26. He lived three more years at his home in Maryland before succumbing to complications from colic in 1990. Mr. Taylor passed away a year earlier at age 88.

Toronto Sun

The Legacy

It’s difficult to quantify Northern Dancer’s total impact on the global thoroughbred industry, but the numbers are mind-boggling: he sired 645 registered foals in 23 seasons, 63% of which were winners, and nearly 23% stakes winners, and produced champions of six different countries. If you want to put a price tag on his prodigiousness consider this: In 1982 a European syndicate offered to buy him $40 million…only to be turned down.

Northern Dancer’s legacy endures today as a true thoroughbred kingmaker; a sire of sires. The foundation. It would be nearly impossible to fill a race anywhere in the world completely void of his DNA.

Not bad for a little old runt from Canada.

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