History

The “Head” That Made The Modern Thoroughbred

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To understand modern Thoroughbred racing and particularly breeding industries in the U.S. as they extend their reach abroad, you have to start with—Canada, and a head.

Much of the entire structure of what is estimated to be a $38 billion share of the overall $122 billion equine industry in the U.S., according to The American Horse Council, to say nothing of its worldwide value and impact, has been largely determined by the one-head victory of an undersized Canadian horse.

That was the margin of difference between winner Northern Dancer, the first Canadian-bred to win the most classic of American races, over favored Hill Rise, the 1964 Kentucky Derby.

But that gets ahead of the story.

Northern Dancer’s ongoing legacy begins in 1952 when Canadian businessman and horse fancier Edward P. Taylor attends the December sale at historic Newmarket, England and comes away with the English mare, Lady Angela. While still in Europe, he has his new purchase bred to the Italian stallion (no, not “Rocky” Balboa) Nearco, then returns home with her to his Windfields Farm, Ontario where she foals the colt Nearctic on February  11, 1954.

Taylor acquires the American horse Natalma as a broodmare when she is retired from racing after chipping a bone in training for the Kentucky Oaks. She had won three of her seven starts, even after being disqualified to third after winning the 1959 Spinaway Stakes.

Bred to Nearctic on June 28, 1960, the last mate of his first crop, Natalma foals a colt on May 27, 1961 at her new home in Ontario, whose name would combine that of her own sire, Native Dancer, and her chilly new Canadian home—Northern Dancer.

The rest is not quite yet history.

Though a Thoroughbred, Northern Dancer still was an international mongrel…and a runt. He would be officially listed as 15.2 hands, a “hand” being approximately four inches or ten centimeters at the withers, but the horsemen and handicappers of the day placed him closer to a smaller 15 hands. By comparison, this year’s American Triple Crown winner Justify stands at a towering 16.3 hands, or a half-foot taller, the same height as the legendary Secretariat.

Despite the Dancer’s elegant pedigree, the purchase of a racehorse in that era was as much if not more about racing prowess than breeding potential. The reality is one cannot measure a horse’s spirit. Diminutive horses have often overtaken their larger fellows: witness Seabiscuit over War Admiral in their legendary 1938 match race on War Admiral’s Pimlico home track.

He would be officially listed as 15.2 hands.

But money deferred to caution then, so no buyer was willing to pony-up the reserve price of $25,000 at his yearling sale. Northern Dancer was returned to his Ontario stable to prepare for the Canadian racing season.

He made his racing debut Aug. 2, 1963 at the Fort Erie Race Track in a six-furlong maiden race for Canadian foals. He was ridden by…wait for it…Ron Turcotte, the jockey who would later guide Secretariat to legendary fame. He won by eight lengths.

Turcotte was committed to another horse, Ramblin’ Man, and beat the Dancer on that horse two weeks later in the Vandal Stakes. A mere week later with Turcotte back up—racehorses raced frequently in those days—Northern Dancer returned to Fort Erie to win the Summer Stakes, a mile race on a messy track, despite a near fall.

He stretched out September 28  to 1 1/16 miles in the Cup and Saucer, but Turcotte took him to an early lead and the Dancer tired to a 3/4-length loss to Grand Carcon. Back on October 7 at the same distance in the Bloordale Purse, he carried five more pounds than his chief rival Northern Flight, who flew away to a 15-length lead before the Dancer engaged the leader in the stretch and pulled away to a 1 1/2 length win, the pair leaving the rest of the field 25 lengths behind.

With Turcotte still aboard, he won the Coronation Futurity by six lengths on October 12, besting 14 competitors and again coming from behind. It would be Turcotte’s last ride on the Dancer, with trainer Horatio Luro fearful Turcotte could not control the willful colt.

Still, the winning continued. The Dancer won the Carleton Stakes through the mud at Greenwood on November 7, then shipped to Aqueduct in New York to prep for the Remsen Stakes. By this time, he had run seven races in only three months. No matter. New rider Manuel Ycaza won the prep Sir Gaylord by eight lengths.

With his heavy race schedule and now-fierce competition, the Dancer developed a quarter-crack on his left front hoof that had to be closed with a special shoe. No matter. He won the Remsen gate-to-wire on November 27.

Time off.

Northern Dancer returned to the racetrack in January with new jockey Bobby Ussery, and a new rubber shoe to protect the injured left hoof. In a six-furlong prep for the American Triple Crown, the Dancer was bumped out of the gate and trapped behind several horses, finishing third. Worse, Ussery went against Luro’s specific instruction and used the whip, something the trainer strictly forbade: “I don’t want him punished,” said the trainer later when deciding to remove Ussery.

The Dancer welcomed his fourth not-so-regular rider, Hall-of-Famer Bill Shoemaker, for the March 3 Flamingo Stakes and won by seven lengths as the favorite. Entered into the Mrs. Florida Purse (yes, that term was still in use then), the Dancer won by four lengths in a track-record time that still stands with Ycaza back on since Shoemaker had a previous commitment.

“I don’t want him punished,” said trainer Horatio Luro.

Shoemaker back up. Northern Dancer entered as a huge 3-10 favorite in the April 4 Florida Derby. Urged without the whip, the Dancer took the lead in the stretch and held on for a length win over The Scoundrel.

Then came one of those decisions that make for racing history. Shoemaker had been asked by Luro to commit to the Derby. But the rider instead listened to the pundits who wrote after the Florida Derby that the Dancer had tired. So he sought instead to ride unbeaten California invader, Hill Rise, winner of the San Felipe and the Santa Anita Derby—”The Big Cap”—in his home state.

Shoemaker got the ride on Hill Rise. Be careful what you wish for.

Bill Hartack became rider number six, the final career rider, on Northern Dancer.

Hartack guided the Dancer to victory in the Blue Grass Stakes on April 23, but the margin was a scant half-length under a hand ride, giving Hill Rise the handicapper’s edge in the Kentucky Derby.

The first Saturday in May was an early May 2 in 1964. And the field was only 12 horses, unlike today’s sweepstakes to merely enter the 20-horse-race.

Reminiscent of Thunder Snow’s 2017 Derby, Northern Dancer began bucking as the band played “My Old Kentucky Home” to an always tearful Churchill Downs crowd. But the fiery colt settled into Gate 7 and broke cleanly, gaining the jump on Hill Rise who became entangled behind other horses. The Dancer gained the lead around the final turn and led by two lengths in the stretch. Hill Rise came clear and began making up ground in huge strides.

But at the wire, Northern Dancer and Hartack, hand-riding all the way and never using the whip, prevailed by a head. A little-known fact: Northern Dancer would set the race record at two minutes flat for the Derby, not to be broken until 1973 and Secretariat by a scant 0:00.40.

The Dancer would go on to win the Preakness by 2 1/2 lengths over The Scoundrel and Hill Rise, but fail in his bid for the American Triple Crown, finishing a tired six-lengths third to Quadrangle and Roman Brother.

A little-known fact: Northern Dancer would set the race record at two minutes flat for the Derby, not to be broken until 1973 and Secretariat by a scant 0:00.40.

There would be a Northern Dancer Day June 8 in Toronto during which owner Taylor would be presented with a key to the city that was carved from a carrot, Northern Dancer’s favorite treat. When presented with it later, the Dancer promptly ate it.

There would also be one more race, The Queen’s Plate back home at Woodbine where the Dancer would come from off the pace for an easy seven-length victory, again never feeling the sting of the whip.

Since racehorses raced in those days, Northern Dancer remained in training, this time returning to Belmont for the Fall New York racing season. During training in July, he bowed a tendon. The injury did not respond well to treatment. He was retired after an only two-year, 18-race career that finished with a 14-2-2 record.

His total lifetime racing earnings? $580,800

You read that right.

But Northern Dancer’s real legacy begins with a ramp.

Entered into stud at home in Canada, he was offered at stud for $10,000 per live foal. He was so small that a ramp had to be constructed so he could physically cover larger mares, a requirement in Thoroughbred breeding for racehorses.

His first crop came out of the gate as he did. Fast. It included Canadian Horse of the Year Viceregal. His second crop would sire English Triple Crown winner Nijinsky, a larger copy of his dad.

Demand for his services as a sire became overwhelming. The little horse that could was relocated from Canada to Windfields Farm Maryland—not Kentucky—where he remained in stud, then on pension, until his death at 29, euthanized during an extreme bout of colic.

He was so small that a ramp had to be constructed so he could physically cover larger mares.

But he kept a passport through all those years. His list of awards pre-dates the American Eclipse Awards inaugurated in 1971: Canadian Champion 2-year-old in 1963 and Champion 3-year-old in 1964, U.S. Champion 3-year-old-colt and Canadian Horse of the Year in 1964.

He became the leading sire in North America in 1971 and 1977, and of broodmares in 1991. He was chosen the leading sire in Britain and Ireland in 1970, 1978, 1973 and 1974.

He is arguably the leading Thoroughbred sire of the 20th century…in part because, stunningly, he remained fertile until age 26, when he was finally pensioned from stud duty. By 1984, his stud fee was $500,000 and, from that time until his final year, stud fees were privately negotiated. Even at 20 years of age, a syndicate in Europe offered $40 million for him, an offer that was refused.

His legacy is near incalculable. It has been estimated that 80 percent of today’s Thoroughbreds can trace their lineage to Northern Dancer.

Among horses descended from him are Justify, American Pharoah, California Chrome, I’ll Have Another, Animal Kingdom, Drosselmeyer, Mine The Bird, Summer Bird, Rachel Alexandra, even Black Caviar in Australia and Gentildonna in Japan. The full list is a litany of recent and modern Thoroughbred racing champions.

It has been estimated that 80 percent of today’s Thoroughbreds can trace their lineage to Northern Dancer.

It would be a formidable actuarial task to determine the amount of sales, racing and breeding monies accumulated by his progeny and their descendants.

It is a joke among horsemen when asked about his genetic influence: “You may have Northern Dancer’s blood coursing through your veins!” they may say.

And that might not be so bad.