Canada 150

Northern Dancer: Canadian stallion

A star on the track and a superstar in the barn, 1964 Kentucky Derby winner Northern Dancer's greatness lives on in the countless thoroughbreds he's sired.

1964 Kentucky Derby winner was a star on the track and a superstar in the barn

Northern Dancer won the '64 Run for the Roses, but the scores of thoroughbreds he produced are perhaps his greatest legacy. (Canadian Press)

Editor's note: This is part of a series of stories celebrating some of Canada's top sports heroes and moments as the country marks its 150th birthday this year. We've also revisited the lives of baseball hall of famer Ferguson Jenkins, speed skater Gaetan Boucher, skier Nancy Greene, figure skater Barbara Ann Scott, distance runner Tom Longboat, sprinter Harry Jerome and auto racing's Villeneuve family. We've also looked back at the Richard Riot and explored Babe Ruth's Canadian origins.

Find all of CBC Sports' Canada 150 stories here.


A famous story of a famous horse:

Shortly after Northern Dancer completed his racing heroics in 1964, a student at the Ontario School for the Blind wrote a fan letter to Windfields Farm, asking to meet his hero.

Winifred Taylor, wife of the stallion's owner, E.P., sent word to the barn they would be coming down this day, so world renowned trainer Horatio Luro stepped into the stall at Woodbine race track to put the horse's halter on. Dancer would have none of it — as told by publicist Bruce Walker, who was there, the horse backed Luro into a corner, bared his teeth, reared up and began boxing with his front legs.    

Not much frightened Luro, but this time he dove for his life towards the opening and right under the webbing stretched across it. Dancer was in one of his frequent moods, and all there were worried what would happen when Mrs. Taylor brought her guest along.

But as soon as the horse saw her coming he calmed right down, nostrils stilled, head over the webbing so the boy could pat and stroke the now famous equine star. Didn't move a muscle. And then the visitors left ... and the nostrils flared again.

That was Northern Dancer — a star on the track and a superstar in the barn who became the most important and influential North American stallion of the 20th century — and one who, to this day, dominates bloodlines around the world.


Tiny Dancer

Author Muriel Lennox, who had been lead rider for the Taylors at their estate for 12 years, captured the essence of Northern Dancer in her 1995 biography when she told of visiting the great one at his Maryland stud, late in the stallion's life.

"There was something about his restless patrolling that gave one the sense of an animal in the wild guarding his territory, a feeling that to challenge him would prove dangerous," Lennox wrote. "Ever on the alert, he behaved more like a wild stallion than a horse that had been pampered and fawned over all his life."

If you were to judge the animal merely on his racing career the story would have been impressive. In 1964 he became the first of two Canadian breds (with Sunny's Halo, 1983) to win the Run for the Roses, the prestigious Kentucky Derby. 

Next came a victory at the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, the second jewel of the Triple Crown, and after a loss at the Belmont in New York, he won the Queen's Plate back in Toronto — all tremendous achievements for a horse born and raised north of the border. 

Dancer was short for a racer — 15.1 hands (in two-inch horse shoes, the joke went), or just 61 inches to the "withers" or his front shoulders. Barely higher than a pony looking from the side; from the front, he was stocky, big chested and superbly muscled. 

In the breeding shed, that diminutive height forced staff to dig a trench for the mares so the Dancer could service them. When moved to Windfields' Maryland location before he turned 10, they reversed it and built him a platform, dubbed the pitcher's mound.


Family tree

Some numbers:

Of the Dancer's first crop of 21 foals, there were 10 stakes winners. 

Nijinsky II came from crop two and was the first British Triple Crown winner in 35 years (1970), later becoming the top sire in Britain and Ireland. The Minstrel won the Epsom and Irish Derbys (1977). Dance Smartly took the Canadian Triple Crown (1991). 

On and on his sperm swam — 146 stakes winners by the time he turned 20. Up to 1990, there were 174 yearlings sold at Keeneland, Kentucky, for $160 million US — numbers off the charts. 

At his top, stud fees for a date with the king rose to $1 million, no guarantees, with the highest yearling price ever at $13 million. This from a horse no one wanted to buy for $25,000 at his own yearling sale because he was too short. 

You want a modern way to chart it? To gain a Wikipedia page a horse tends to have significant racing accomplishments. There are 685 entries for top thoroughbreds that trace directly to Northern Dancer.

It is estimated that over the coming years, up to 70 per cent of all thoroughbreds in the world will trace to Canada's horse.

Alpha male

Those are all numbers, however — bottom lines for a breeding farm bookkeeping that say nothing of the flesh and blood and brain of the stallion himself.

Born on May 27, 1961 (by Nearctic, from Natalma, both blue bloods to the bone), the little guy had a nice white star on the forehead and a flash that started down the face until, as though the artist had been distracted ("Hey, the Leafs scored ... Oops!") it took a sharp turn to the left and curled around a nostril.

Northern Dancer followed his Kentucky Derby victory by winning the Preakness Stakes, pictured, but his Triple Crown bid fell short at the Belmont. (Associated Press)

Mrs. Taylor named him and he was from the beginning different from other foals — no sprinting around the paddock, more of a leisurely gallop when the mood struck. Everything seemed to be up, not out. He bounced around like a top and ran more like the horses on a carousel — up and down, up and down. 

Windfields' staff had a cocky little handful to train, said farm manager Peter Poole, in a History Television documentary. This horse seemed to know he was born to be the Alpha male, the lead stallion, long before any of the humans worked it out. 

Breaking him was tough as he bucked "practically everybody off." Luro suggested gelding him — history hung by the thread of two testicles — but E.P. wouldn't have it.

So a fine racing career it was, followed by years of being the king of the paddock. And the arrogant cuss knew it.

Northern Dancer once destroyed a stall because a mare was brought for another stallion instead of him. He'd literally bite the hand trying to feed him, more than once. He had a mind of his own and no one, save Mrs. Taylor, would ever change it. 

When he finally died in 1990 at the age of 29, he was shipped back from Maryland and arrived at his Oshawa birthplace around midnight where the entire staff had gathered, many in tears, to see a huge oaken casket lowered into the ground.


The farm is closed now, the land part of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, though the graves are untouched. 

"The thing is he hasn't died ... he lives ... his spirit still lives, his offspring still live ... he's running in them," said Lennox, beautifully, in an interview for Biography. 

If you visit the Dancer's statue at Woodbine Racetrack for the first time, take a red rose with you and lay it at his feet and remember the greatness that will never be forgotten.

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