The death of Northern Dancer, 'Canada's most famous racehorse'

The famed Canadian thoroughbred once won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Queen's Plate in the same year.

Legendary racehorse won Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Queen's Plate in the same year

Northern Dancer is seen in an undated photo. (Canadian Press)
He's been gone almost as long as he was here.
Canada's most famous racehorse, Northern Dancer, is euthanized. 6:28

He was a racehorse, his name was Northern Dancer and in 1964, he won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Queen's Plate — all in the same year. 

Jockey Bill Hartack is wreathed in roses in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs today aboard Northern Dancer after they won the 90th Kentucky Derby in 1964. Owner E.P. Taylor is holding the bridle. (Associated Press)

Twenty-eight years ago, his death was big news in the sporting world and in Canada.

"The Dancer's gone," As It Happens co-host Al Maitland told CBC Radio listeners on Nov. 16, 1990. 

"Northern Dancer, Canada's most famous racehorse, was put down after an attack of colic."

Northern Dancer was also, as Maitland told listeners, "the first Canadian-born thoroughbred to make it big in the racing world."

The racehorse was 29 years old when it was put down.

Jim Coleman, a sports writer and the author of several books on horse racing, shared some of his memories of Northern Dancer with As It Happens on the day of the horse's death.

"He was short-coupled, but I tell you — he was an awfully quick horse," Coleman told As It Happens.

"Quick in his movements and quick in his mind."

'He loved to take a kick at you'

Coleman said Northern Dancer could be temperamental at times, as well.

Jockey Bill Hartack is aboard Northern Dancer, right, as he crosses the finish line to win the 88th running of the Preakness at Pimlico racetrack in Baltimore, Maryland, in this May 16, 1964 file photo. (The Associated Press)

"You had to be very careful around him because he loved to take a kick at you, and if you didn't keep an eye on him, you were liable to have your head wind up in the bleachers," said Coleman.

Northern Dancer was retired from racing after his Queen's Plate win. In 1965, he — yes, a horse —was inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame.

In retirement, he was put out to stud. According to Coleman, this may have been where Northern Dancer had his greatest impact on the world of horse racing.

"I don't think there's ever been a sire who has produced so many great horses," said Coleman.

The New York Times, reporting on Northern Dancer's death, described the thoroughbred as the "dominant progenitor of his breed."

More than 400 of his foals went on to win races, according to the newspaper's obituary report.