In the history of Thoroughbred racing, there are many champions – horses whose sparkling records made them standouts in their time. But none casts a shadow as long as that of Canadian-bred Northern Dancer, whose success at the track was but a prelude to his unparalleled brilliance at stud.
“The Dancer’s” story begins with Canadian tycoon Edward P. Taylor’s late-season breeding of his classy homebred Nearctic to the stakes-placed mare Natalma. Nearctic was by the Italian-bred sensation Nearco, out of the Irish mare Lady Angela (a daughter of the British champion sire Hyperion), while Natalma was a daughter of Maryland’s “grey ghost” Native Dancer, himself a champion in America’s classic races.
On May 27, 1961, Natalma gave birth to a bay colt with three white socks, a crooked blaze and no remarkable traits – except, perhaps, for his feisty nature (a trait he reportedly inherited from his dam) and his small size. Taylor’s wife Winifred, who had named their farm Windfields, dubbed him Northern Dancer.
Unsold as an “ugly duckling” yearling, Northern Dancer thrived as a racehorse and, under trainer Horatio Luro, became Canada’s champion 2-year-old colt. A chunky 15.2-hand powerhouse, “The Dancer” developed into a come-from-behind specialist, lurking just off the pace and then transforming into a “Lamborghini,” according to Canadian journalist Peter Gzowski.
As Joe Hickey, former general manager of Windfields’ Maryland division, recalled, “It was always amazing to watch people’s reactions to him … he was really like a little pocket battleship.”
However, the fitter he got, the more difficult Northern Dancer became to work with, prompting thoughts of gelding him. Fortunately, Taylor decided against that, instead pointing him towards the prestigious Triple Crown of American Thoroughbred racing (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes) in 1964, his 3-year-old year.
Dismissed because of his Canadian origins, it didn’t help that Northern Dancer was recovering from a cracked hoof, or that one of his regular riders, the legendary Willie Shoemaker, opted to ride favorite Hill Rise in the Derby instead.
This was the last time he would be underestimated.
© Tony Leonard
Under Bill Hartack, Northern Dancer won the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby in a record 2:00, becoming the first Canadian-born horse to triumph in this iconic American race. He went on to win Maryland’s Preakness Stakes, too, but his Triple Crown bid ended when he finished third in New York’s Belmont Stakes, the victim of a strained tendon.
Northern Dancer was retired after winning the Queen’s Plate in Toronto, Canada. He boasted a career total of 14 wins, two seconds and two thirds from 18 starts, to the tune of more than $580,000.
The 3-year-old championship, the Canadian Horse of the Year title and Athlete of the Year tributes were his. He was even inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, the first animal to be honored that way.
Retired to stud in Canada, where he initially stood for just $10,000, Northern Dancer’s first crop included 16 winners from 18 starters, including 10 stakes winners and three eventual Canadian champions (Viceregal, Dance Act and One For All) – a percentage six times higher than the average for freshman stallions.
In late 1968, he was sent to Windfields’ new Maryland facility. Here, his legend only grew, despite the fact that his progeny were often as diminutive as their sire, and that Kentucky — not Maryland! — was America’s traditional Thoroughbred nursery.
With a standard book of 36 mares and few yearlings sold each year, Northern Dancer bloodlines were soon in hot demand.
America’s leading sire in 1971 by worldwide standings, “The Dancer” was also America’s top broodmare sire in 1991. During this period, his offspring triggered an historic buying frenzy abroad. It started in 1968, with Irish trainer Vincent O’Brien’s purchase (for Charles Engelhard) of a Northern Dancer-Flaming Page yearling for a record $84,000. The yearling would become the majestic Nijinsky II, who was champion 2-year-old colt in England and Ireland, and the first winner of England’s Triple Crown since 1935 — not to mention Horse of the Year.
Later, O’Brien and his partners Robert Sangster and John Magnier bought, bred and/or raced such top-class Northern Dancer stock as The Minstrel, Be My Guest, Storm Bird, El Gran Senor, Try My Best and Sadler’s Wells. Most of these horses were national champions at least once, rendering America’s “pocket battleship” England’s top sire in 1970, 1977, 1983 and 1984, and the United Arab Emirates’ foremost broodmare sire in 1995.
Breeders in that affluent era forked out as much as $1 million for a single season to Northern Dancer. By the mid-1980s, his yearlings were averaging a record sales price of $3.3 million, and the Northern Dancer colt Snaafi Dancer had become the first yearling sold for $10 million or more at auction.
But that was just the beginning. Over 23 seasons, Northern Dancer sired 635 registered foals, 80 percent of which raced. Of these, an astounding 80 percent were winners, 146 of them stakes winners and 26 champions in not only North America, but England, Ireland, Italy and France. And though the females of his line have done him credit, the world knows no more influential sire of influential sires. Northern Dancer is peerless in that regard, having established racing’s most dominant male line of the late 20th century.
He is now considered the greatest commercial sire in Thoroughbred history, because his progeny have won more major stakes races and earned more money than those of any other stallion.
Today, half to three-quarters of all modern Thoroughbreds are believed to have Northern Dancer in their bloodlines, a tribute to both his longevity at stud and the success of his offspring. This includes winners of the world’s great long-distance turf classics, not to mention the Kentucky Derby and all of the Breeders’ Cup races. (His name appears no fewer than three times in the pedigree of I’ll Have Another, winner of both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 2012.)
In more recent generations, Northern Dancer’s legacy also includes stars in steeplechasing and three-day eventing (through the likes of sire Northern Baby), as well as hunter/jumper showing (through sire Northern Raja).
His place in history secure, Northern Dancer was inducted into American racing’s Hall of Fame in 1976, retired from stud at age 26 and euthanized on Nov. 16, 1990 due to colic.
Northern Dancer was posthumously honored with a Breyer portrait in his likeness in 2012 - this Traditional scale model was in production through 2014.
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