When you talk about horses that make history, Northern Dancer has a place of his very own. Standing a mere 14.3 hands tall (150 cm) and born in Canada at the end of May, he had the odds stacked against him. Every now and then, however, what can’t be actually happens. This is such a tale.
The Canadian businessman Edward Plunkett Taylor loved racing. During the twenties and thirties it was he who more or less saved Canadian racing. He bought run-down race tracks and took over studs galore. But Taylor had a dream—to create a Canadian star, a horse to be remembered with reverance long after we had forgotten EP Taylor himself. A horse to win the Kentucky Derby.
Taylor had to start from scratch, with a really good broodmare. Hyperion’s daughter Lady Angela was up for auction at Newmarket, England, in December 1952, in foal to the great Nearco. Taylor wanted to buy the mare, let her foal in England and have her covered by Nearco again.
The Hyperion/Nearco nick was one everybody believed in. But so far it had not worked out especially well in real life.
Martin Benson, the owner of the mare, was the main owner of Nearco as well. At this time and age one didn’t sell breedings. It was a time when a part owner in a stallion had a certain amount of covering rights and held on to them. Benson would be happy enough to sell the mare, but not an additional covering.
EP Taylor, however, found out Benson was not just a bookmaker, but a gambler, too. He spent his winters in Florida, where it was difficult for an Englishman to bring cash. Cash for gambling. A promise of $3,000 waiting for Benson in Florida solved Taylor’s problem. In the end Lady Angela was sold for $35,000, an enormous amount in the 1950s.
Lady Angela arrived in Canada and foaled the colt Nearctic. A fitting name for a son of Nearco born (Né in French) in the far north (Arctic).
Nearctic was a tough horse to deal with. Very tough. Track work made him so much on his toes, that he was hardly ridable. During his racing career, he suffered from a cracked hoof, that often played havoc with the plans for him. Victories came, nevertheless. As a 4-year-old the horse won the Michigan Mile in Detroit and its $40,000.
A fortnight later Taylor was in Saratoga for the sales. Nearctic’s winnings were to be invested in a broodmare. Natalma, a grand-daughter of Mother Goose by Native Dancer, was picked out. Native Dancer was the first racehorse to become an idol in the era of American television. Native Dancer raced 22 times and won 21 times. He was second once: In the Kentucky Derby. Rumour has it, his ghost still lurks beneath the grandstand at Churchill Downs, seeking revenge on Dark Star—the horse who denied him his greatest triumph.
Natalma won races, but she had an adversity—she hated the whip. Once she threw herself against the rails to avoid it. In the process she bumped another horse and was disqualified. It took weeks before she would go even near the track again.
A knee injury undid her and her racing career was cut short. When she went into the breeding barn it was late in the season. A nearby stallion was required and a fertile one at that. The answer was Nearctic, who was standing at the owner’s stud and had proved he had the ”juice” during his first season.
It was on the 27th of May 1961—when most of that year’s crop had already been foaled—Natalma’s little first born saw daylight. The colt was small and when the time came for the yearling sales at Windfield Farms the following year, he was standing at least 10 centimeters below his contemporaries.
His reserve was $25,000. Even if his pedigree was fantastic as such, neither Nearctic nor Natalma had been quite up to expectations. And both had been injury prone.
Jim and Phil Boylen were two brothers taking a good look at the small colt, but their trainer put his foot down. ”Who wants a midget?”
Jim later said, that it probably was all for the good, they didn’t buy him. ”We were just a bunch of amateurs. Knowing us, we probably would have gelded him.” he said.
No one bought him, and the small colt stayed behind along with 32 others to be trained and raced in the owner/breeder’s colours.
But he didn’t pull up crossing the line after the nine furlongs. He let Northern Dancer go for another furlong. All in all a mile and a quarter (2000 meters). The Derby distance had been tested.
When Northern Dancer went into training in his native Canada, he was still very much on the smallish side, standing just 14.3 hands, but with plenty of scope. He was built more like a quarter horse than a thoroughbred and was anything but an easy ride. To sit on Northern Dancer was like siting on a keg of gunpowder. He bounced from one foot to the other trotting. Could whip around on a 5 cent piece, and when he went from trotting to galloping, it was like turning on an afterburner. Northern Dancer didn’t take to exercise. He didn’t take to that many humans either.
One sunny July morning at the classic Woodbine track in Toronto, Northern Dancer gave a premonition of what was to come. It was the first time he was to break from the stalls. Horatio Luro, his trainer, told the exercise rider that he could be a bit lazy. ”Touch him down the shoulder with the whip to make sure he gets away.”
And away he came. Like a bat out of Hell. He clocked 37 seconds for 600 meters with the rider pulling him so hard that the saddle slipped forward. One week later he worked 800 meters in: 48.8. Just two weeks further on it was racing time. Ron Turcotte—the man who 10 years later was to pilot Secretariat to his Triple Crown—was up.
”I was told not to use the whip,” Turcotte said. ”The horse went well enough and took the lead when I asked him to, but was satisfied to stay head to head with the other horse. I shifted the whip to my left hand so nothing could be seen from the stands and tapped him once. The horse exploded and within 70 yards he opened up an eight-length lead, which is what we won by. Had I done that at the quarter pole he surely would have won by 15 to 20 lengths.”
Size is not important.
We often hear that a good big one will always beat a good little one, but that is as silly as claiming a top class horse does not care about the going. Many a small horse has become a champion. Northern Dancer is himself the best of examples. He was uncommonly small, but also uncommonly good.
When a horse is small and unfurnished, there isn’t much to work with. The horse simply lacks scope and has too little substance. Small, powerful horses, on the other hand, can be proper Golden Eggs. They are solid, they are strong and thanks to being small, they weigh less and thus are subject to less injuries.
Northern Dancer often met horses standing up to 20 centimeter above him, but not many of them possessed the same body volume. He had an amazing heart and lung capacity. One could see the effect when he started racing as a 2-year-old.
”His stride seems to be twice as long as normal for a horse of his size and to top it, he has full control of his legs,” wrote Charles Hatton, one of the leading experts from the Daily Racing Form, when Northern Dancer became the 2-year-old champion of Canada. ”He reminds me of the Bolshoi Ballet.” In Canada, he won five of his seven races—two of which on the turf—before he was shipped to Aqueduct in New York to meet tougher opposition. He started off in a regular conditions race. Here he met the very smart Buper, who had won the Futurity Stakes and considered among the best in the States.
The punters knew better. They loaded their money onto Northern Dancer. When the gates opened, he was at very prohibitive odds and had Buper one length in arrears when he crossed the line as a not unduly worried winner. Nine days later on the same track he won again, this time the valuable Remsen Stakes. It is one of the most important races for two-year-olds in New York, often indicating which of the East Coast youngsters are good enough to have a crack at next year’s Kentucky Derby.
Beaten in his opener at three.
After Northern Dancer had beaten Lord Date by two lengths in the Remsen, he was one of the favourites for the Kentucky Derby half a year later. But in Florida things went wrong in his first race as a 3-y-o. Under Bob Ussery the horse was badly away after having been interfered with by another horse at the break. When he found his stride, he was far behind and had to go through a wall of horses to reach the front. In the home stretch Ussery made use of his whip to get that little extra out of his mount. He shouldn’t have done it. Northern Dancer finished third and for a quite while after the incident he—like his dam—refused to go near the track.
The next time Northern Dancer was seen in public was in a match race with no prize money at the very same track. A three horse match over 1400 meter. Chieftain, who had beaten him a fortnight earlier, was in the line-up again. This time Northern Dancer got his revenge and beat Chieftain by seven lengths.
Nine days afterward it was time for the Flamingo Stakes. Bill Shoemaker rode and the two length victory made it obvious, that Northern Dancer had the capacity to race with the big guns. Maybe even in Kentucky.
Five short days later he gained yet another victory over 1400 meters at Gulfstream Park as part of the preparations for the Florida Derby on April 4.
On the day before the big race he was to have a work-out. Just a pipe-opener. A new exercise rider was engaged. The trainer’s orders were to go four furlongs (800 m) in 48 seconds. Northern Dancer took a different view, took hold of the bit and took off. When the rider finally was able to pull him up, he had done five furlongs (1000 m) in 58,6. Northern Dancer had raced one day early.
When the horses were at the gate the following day, nerves were abundant. But Billy Shoemaker knew exactly what he was doing. Nicely and with no fuzz he won the nine furlong race in 1:50,8.
Now the sights were set on racing in—and hopefully winning—the Kentucky Derby. The same evening, however, Shoemaker announced that he had chosen another horse in the Kentucky Derby. Hill Rise.
A new jockey was contacted: Bill Hartack. A cocky man with three Derbies to his name. Hartack agreed to try out the horse in the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland nine days prior to the Derby. Hartack kept Northern Dancer on a tight rein until entering the home stretch, where he loosened his hold a bit and was away. Approaching the finish line, however, a cheer went up from the crowd as local boy Allen Adair was closing in rapidly. Hartack loosened the reins a bit more and won by half-a-length. But he didn’t pull up crossing the line after the nine furlongs. He let Northern Dancer go for another furlong. All in all a mile and a quarter (2000 m). The Derby distance had been tested.
The first Saturday in May is like a holiday in Kentucky. All the big races in the world aside, it’s the Kentucky Derby winners who become megastars.
When Northern Dancer arrived at Churchill Downs in Luisville, media was out in force. The interest in the little horse was record high. Especially in Canada, where everybody sat glued to the TV or the radio.
And then they where off. Northern Dancer from post position seven. He found a handy position on the rail in 7th place and waited. But the tactics went sour. When he was about to deliver his challenge, he was boxed in on the outside by Hill Rise. But for a split second an opening appeared and Northern Dancer more or less threw himself out under the chin of Hill Rise. His legs went like drumsticks and it took a while for Hill Rise to get on terms again. Closer and closer he came and almost got alongside. But Northern Dancer kept him at bay. In the [then] record time of 2.00,0.
The cheering in Canada knew no end. People poured out into the streets. Cars honked their horns.
Northern Dancer was the All Canadian Horse.
Two weeks later it was time for the second leg of the Triple Crown, The Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. It was a return match against Hill Rise. Northern Dancer won easily by two lengths. The same evening his trainer announced that they would not be trying for the Triple Crown. The distance of a mile and a half (2400 meters) in the Belmont Stakes was too far.
Taylor, however, had other plans. Having luncheon with Queen Elizabeth II (racing afficionado and de facto Queen of Canada), Her Majesty congratulated him on the the victory. The story goes that the Queen suggested he should have a go at all three races. Northern Dancer was shipped to New York and Aqueduct.
June the sixth arrived. Everybody wanted to see the little hero win. Fate had something else in hand. The race was run slowly, and Northern Dancer ate so much dirt at the back of the pack, that he was coughing it up for hours after the race. He finished third. Some say it was due to bad riding orders. Others, that it was a jockey’s mistake. Whatever the reason, the dream was shattered.
Before his sortie, he went for a tour of honour in Canada. Northern Dancer was the people’s hero. Fanmail arrived by the sack. One blind boy asked if he could come and pat the horse. EP Taylor’s wife, Winifred, gave her permission.
It is well known, that Northern Dancer in spite of his size was no cuddly pony. Just a few days before the boy came visiting,Northern Dancer chased his trainer out of his stall. He had a special relationship with Winifred since he was a foal, though. When she came into the barn with the boy and talked to him, he was standing still as a statue. All the time the boy caressed his muzzle, he behaved like an old cart horse and looked half asleep.
June 20th was the day of the Queen’s Plate at Woodbine in Toronto. Northern Dancer was there to put on a performance for his people, the canadians. At ridiculously low odds.But when the horses passed the grandstand on the first circuit, many a heart in the crowd was stopping. Northern Dancer was second to last. In the next bend he was last.
The jockey’s explanation was simple. His horse was going so freely, he had trouble restraining his pace and had to cover him up. Eventually he had to give Northern Dancer his head and the horse made his own opening by sheer power.
In the back stretch he passed the others one by one. And in the home strech the little hero cruised to a 7-1/2 length victory. The third horse home was a further12 lengths away.
It was all over now, though. An injured tendon he had shown signs of after the Belmont was now evident. Northern Dancer had practically run the entire race on three legs.
His racing career was finished. His total showing was 14 victories, two seconds, and two thirds from 18 races. He earned $580,806.
But now the tale begins in earnest.
Northern Dancer the sire
The following winter Northern Dancer embarked on his second career as a sire.
As a racehorse he was a champion and a good one, but just one of many champions, nevertheless. He is often likened to the legendary gelding gelding Kelso, who was the first horse to earn $1 million in the USA and held the record at $1.9 million (from 39 victories) for 15 years.
Kelso could obviously not become a sire, but Northern Dancer could and is without a doubt still the most influential stallion in the world.
Northern Dancer had a very special personality, which he clearly passed on to his sons, grandsons and their sons… as well as the many fine fillies he sired.
Furthermore he demonstrated to people in his surroundings, that he was an intelligent animal. His jockeys didn’t have to make use of the whip to make him win. A touch on the shoulder was enough for him to shift into overdrive. And win.
The first season at stud Northern Dancer stood for a fee of 10.000 dollars. At the time it was usual for champions to enter breeding strictly controlled by their owners. That way they could make sure the stallion only covered top notch mares and got off to a good start in their breeding career. Horses like Bull Lea, Nasrullah and Bold Ruler were formed into ”Champion Sires” doing that. The owners of Northern Dancer, now a syndicate of 32 persons headed by EP Taylor, again chose their own way. The horse stood at Windfield Farms and was advertised at the open market.
Success was not long coming. In 1967, Northern Dancer had seven 2-year-olds who had been offered at various auctions. All seven raced, which is unusual in itself. All seven won, which is highly unusual. Five of the seven won at the least one stakes race, which is unique. This was the start of something more than a fantastic career as a sire. This was the start of a new era in breeding. It was to be dominated by one name in both the USA and Europe both: Northern Dancer.
Vincent O’Brien—the Irish explorer
That Northern Dancer was an extraordinary sire was soon obvious in the States, but as it turned out another legend was to be almost as important to Northern Dancer’s global legacy as his breeder EP Taylor. Vincent O’Brien, the trainer who was just as clever with horses on the flat as he was with horses over jumps, was the man, who discovered Northern Dancer as a factor of success in Europe. He advised his owners to invest in sons of Northern Dancer beleiving they would be as good— if not better—on turf as they were on the stateside dirt-tracks. He also predicted, that they—in their turn—would succeed as sires. O’Brien, the Master of Ballydoyle, where Aiden O’Brien (no relation) now trains, was right.
He usually was.
He and Robert Sangster imported sons of Nothern Dancer like Nijinsky II, The Minstrel, Storm Bird, Be My Guest and Sadler’s Wells. All became racing champions and all became sucessful sires.
The sons of Northern Dancer often had a special look. They were seldom big, which is understandable, and even if they had mass, they had a bit of Arab look about them. Often they arrived with a big blaze like Northern Dancer himself. They were all well balanced and the assembly line that put them together usually remembered to mount a fantastic head for racing on them. That they also had the qualities to succeed as sires, one could say is a tangible bonus. Even his unraced sons have become fine sires. Night Shift is perhaps the best known of these. He headed the list of sires in England for one season having champions like The Groove and Nicolotte to his name.
”They were all well balanced and the assembly line that put them together usually remembered to mount a fantastic head for racing on them”
40 million. Thanks, but no thanks.
During the 1981 season, when Northern Dancer was 20—years old, Windfield Farms received an offer of $40 million for him. The 32 members of the syndicate immediately declined. They thought he was worth more. They were probably not wrong. The Northern Dancer sons Nijinsky and The Minstrel had both won the Epsom Derby, the Irish Derby and the King George and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes during the 70s. Both stars had Lester Pigott as their steady partner.
A story concerning Nijinsky tells, that his dam Flaming Streak, was in fact sold by Taylor to Frank Sherman as a racehorse. But was she was sent back as she had an inflamed joint. She later won the Queen’s Plate and became Horse of the Year in Canada. When she was covered by Northern Dancer, the result was Nijinsky, who not only won the English and the Irish Derby, but also carried off the English 2000 Guineas and St. Leger to become the first Triple Crown winner for 35 years in the UK.
The success continued in the 80s when Sadler’s Wells entered the stage. Perhaps he was not quite as good a racehorse as Nijinsky, but he is regarded by many as the best sire of the Northern Dancer sons.
”This is not necessarily true,” says Tony Morris, one of the world’s leading experts on thoroughbred breeding. ”Nijinsky and the French Lyphard, trained by Alec Head, were world class sires, too. Northern Dancer is without a doubt the best and most influental sire the world has seen.”
Answering the question on what set Northern Dancer apart from other champion sires, Morris said: ”He had an unusually high percentage of stakes winners. Northern Dancer never covered more than 36 mares a year and in one of his crops he had eleven Stakes winners. No other sire has even come close to those figures and I doubt any in the future will”.
And for the future continuing to be dominated by horses with Northern Dancer blood, one won’t be offered any high odds. The little horse has put his mark on racing forever. And so EP Taylor’s dream came true. More, than he had probably dared to dream. With his three homebreds—Nearctic, his son Northern Dancer and his son Nijinsky—he produced some of the world’s most influental sires.
All born in Canada—a country, where you really can’t breed racehorses, or so they said before 1964.
Northern Dancer’s services were initially offered at $10,000. No foal, no fee.
When he went into retirement at the age of 26, you had to pay $100,000. With no guarantees. Today it is not a question whether a racehorse has Northern Dancer in its pedigree, but rather if it hasn’t.
Northern Dancers stud fee started at $10,000 live foal fee. When he reitired at the age of 26 (1987) mare owners paid $1 million for a breeding. Without any guarantee!
Today the question is not if a race horse has Northern Dancer in its pedigree, but if does NOT have it. He has sired a total of 146 stakes winners.
FAMOUS Northern Dancer OFSPRING:
El Gran Senor
GRANDSIRE OF (among others)
Northern Dancer is both the maternal and paternal grand-grand sire to Big Brown. Winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 2008.
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