Before Wayne Gretzky learned to skate, the most famous Canadian athlete in the world was a small bay Thoroughbred by the name of Northern Dancer. Born May 27, 1961, at Mr. Edward Plunket Taylor's National Stud near Oshawa, Ontario, Northern Dancer started life by way of an accident.1 His dam, Natalma (a daughter of The Grey Ghost, Native Dancer), broke a bone in her knee while training for the 1960 Kentucky Oaks and was sent to the breeding shed rather late in the season. Northern Dancer's sire, Canadian champion Nearctic, had just retired to stud and had yet to prove himself as a stallion.2
The small bay colt with three white stockings and a blaze was unremarkable as a yearling. When Taylor offered him for $25,000 at his annual private yearling sale, there were no interested buyers. So, Northern Dancer was shipped to Fort Erie to begin training under Tom Fleming. On August 2, 1963, he won his first race at Fort Erie (the 5 1/2 furlong Maiden) by 6 3/4 lengths under then-apprentice jockey Ron Turcotte. A few weeks later, he won the Summer Stakes over turf by 1 1/4 length, then placed second to Ramblin Road in the Vandal Stakes.
This early performance was enough to attract notice, and Northern Dancer was transferred to Taylor's Hall of Fame trainer, Horatio Luro. He ran second to Grand Garcon in the Cup and Saucer Stakes at Woodbine, carrying eleven pounds more than the other colt, then won five consecutive races to finish his two year old season: the Coronation Futurity and the Carleton Stakes in Canada, the Remsen Stakes and two allowance races at Aqueduct. He was named Canadian Champion Two Year Old Colt for 1963. In nine starts, he placed first seven times and second twice, bringing home just over $90,000.
Northern Dancer established his racing style as a two year old. The 15.2 hand colt generally sat just off the pace for most of the race, then kicked in a sharp burst of acceleration and hung on to the end. Sportswriter Jim Murray described him thus: "His legs are barely long enough to keep his tail off the ground. He probably takes a hundred more strides than anyone else in the race, but he's harder to pass up than a third martini."3
As a three year old, Northern Dancer had some good competition. The Californian colt Hill Rise had been unbeaten in four starts the previous season. Other names included the gelding Roman Brother (Horse of the Year, 1964), The Scoundrel, and Quadrangle. Bill Shoemaker regularly rode both Northern Dancer and Hill Rise in 1963, but Horatio Luro asked the jockey to commit to one of the colts for the 1964 season and the Shoe chose Hill Rise. Bill Hartack took over riding Northern Dancer.
The season started with a third-place finish in a 6 furlong allowance race February 10 at Hialeah, but Northern Dancer did not lose again until June. He won the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah on March 3, a 7 furlong allowance race at Gulfstream Park on March 28, the Florida Derby at Gulfstream on April 4, and the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 23. Suddenly it was the first Saturday in May and time for the 90th running of the Kentucky Derby.
May 2, 1964 was warm but overcast.4 The track at Churchill Downs was fast. Twelve horses were entered in the big race, including Hill Rise, Quadrangle, Roman Brother, and The Scoundrel. Hill Rise was the betting favorite, although Northern Dancer was second. Although Northern Dancer was forced to the outside to avoid traffic, he came on strong near the last turn and managed to beat Hill Rise by a neck. In so doing, he set a new track record for a mile and a quarter of two minutes flat, a time that was not improved until Secretariat's day in 1973.5 Behind Northern Dancer and Hill Rise, the order of the finish was The Scoundrel, Roman Brother, Quadrangle, Mr. Brick, Mr. Moonlight, Dandy K., Ishkoodah, Wil Rad, Extra Swell, and Royal Chuck. Northern Dancer was the first Canadian-bred horse to win the Derby, and Canada loved him for it. The mayor of Toronto awarded him the key to the city and the newspapers were full of him.6
Two weeks later, six of the usual suspects gathered again at Pimlico for the Preakness Stakes on May 16. This time, Northern Dancer won by two and a quarter lengths (his time was 1:56 4/5). The Scoundrel was second and Hill Rise finished third. It looked like the Triple Crown was sure to fall to the Canadian wonder colt, but the distance or the grueling schedule finally wore him down. Quadrangle won the Belmont Stakes on June 6 by two lengths over Roman Brother and Northern Dancer, with a time of 2:28 2/5. Northern Dancer suffered a tendon strain during the race, but Trainer Luro patched him up and sent him out again on June 30 to easily win the Queen's Plate at Woodbine. After that, though, Northern Dancer retired from the track. In his career of eighteen starts, he never finished worse than third and won fourteen races, for a total of over $580,000.
Canadian sportswriters voted Northern Dancer 1964 Athlete of the Year, and he was also Champion Three Year Old Male. In 1965, he was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, the first animal ever honored in that way. His first year at National Stud, Northern Dancer stood for a fee of only $10,000. His first crop of foals produced Vice Regal, who became Canadian Two Year Old Champion and Horse of the Year. Out of twenty-one foals in that first crop, ten were stakes winners. His second crop included the European champion Nijinsky II who was sold for the record price of $84,000 as a yearling, and who became Two Year Old Champion in England and Ireland after racing undefeated. Soon, Canada was not big enough for Northern Dancer's growing worldwide popularity as a stallion and he was moved to Taylor's Windfields Farm in Maryland at the end of 1968. In 1969, Nijinsky II won the English Triple Crown and was again named Horse of the Year in England and Ireland. Northern Dancer became the leading North American sire in 1971 and 1977, as well as the leading sire in England in 1970, 1977, 1983, and 1984. By the early 1980's, his stud fee had increased to over $1 million.
At the 1983 Keeneland yearling sale, a son of Northern Dancer was auctioned with an opening bid of $1 million. Sheikh Maktoum of Dubai eventually purchased the colt, later named Snaafi Dancer, for $10,200,000: the first $10 million yearling ever sold.
Northern Dancer continued to be a productive sire through 1986. He retired from breeding in 1987 at age 26. He fathered 635 registered foals, and over one hundred of them were stakes winners. Many of his sons became great sires as well, including Danzig, Lyphard, Nijinsky II, Nureyev, Sadler's Wells, and Vice Regent. It has been estimated that between 40 and 75 % of the thoroughbreds racing today can trace their descent to Northern Dancer. He is possibly the greatest sire of the past three hundred years.
Northern Dancer died November 16, 1990 at Windfields Farm and came home to Canada for burial at National Stud. He was 29 years old.7
Northern Dancer's pedigree:8,9
| | | Pharos by Phalaris
| | Nearco |
| | | Scapa Flow by Chaucer
| Nearctic | |
| | | Hyperion by Gainsborough
| | Lady Angela |
| | | Sister Sarah by Abbots Trace
Northern Dancer -----------------------------------------------------------
| | | Polynesian by Unbreakable
| | Native Dancer |
| | | Geisha by Discovery
| Natalma | |
| | | Mahmoud by Blenheim II
| | Almahmoud |
| | | Arbitrator by Peace Chance
1. Keith, Victoria "Northern Dancer"
2. Sparkman, John P. "A place in history"
3. Murray, Jim quoted by http://thoroughbredchampions.com/library
5. The Blood Horse at http://tcm.bloodhorse.com
7. "As It Happens" radio program at http://archives.cbc.ca/IDC-1-41-148-775-21/unforgettable_moments/sports/northern_dancer_dies