Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Late Great Northern Dancer

(Wikipedia photo)
For those who follow thoroughbreds, you'll certainly know Northern Dancer (May 27, 1961 – November 16, 1990).  He's one of the most famous and most influential thoroughbred stallions in history even though he did not win the Triple Crown. Born and bred in Canada, he won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and never ran lower than third in any race winning 14 of his 18 races.  In The Blood Horse ranking of the top 100 US thoroughbred champions of the 20th Century, Northern Dancer was ranked #43.

Northern Dancer stood at stud at E.P. Taylor's Windfields Farm in Ontario until 1969, when he was moved to Windfields' 2850-acre Maryland farm (bypassing Kentucky), where he remained until his death.   His breeding rights were limited to 36 mares (50-55 mares were typical) which some account for his longevity as a breeding stallion.

Northern Dancer was the most successful 20th century thoroughbred sire. His offspring have earned more money and won more major stakes races than those of any other sire up until the 1990s era of shuttle stallions.  He sired 147 stakes winners.  By early 1980, Northern Dancer and his son Nijinsky II had combined to sire the winners of almost US$20 million in stakes.


But his life did not start out so well. No one wanted to buy E.P. Taylor's small bay colt, he was only 15.2 and looked like a quarter horse more than a Thoroughbred. Offered for $25,000 at the yearling sale, no one wanted him so he went back to Taylor's farm to begin his training.  No one made fun of small stature when he broke the 89-year track record to win the Kentucky Derby in 1964 and he became known as the "pocket battleship."  His racing career was cut short when he endured a tendon injury after winning the Queen's Plate at Woodbine that same year.  Ironically, Taylor had been told by the Kentucky cognoscenti that breeding a champion racehorse in Canada was "as likely as pigs flying."

(Northern Dancer winning his last race with EP Taylor and his wife, Pinterest)

In the 1980s, Northern Dancer's stud fee reached $1 million, an amount four to five times his rivals and a record amount that as of 2009 has not been equaled.  And although he has been dead for over 20 years, there are more Northern Dancer-line Breeder's Cup winners than any other horse.  He is the great-grandsire (on both the sire and dam side) of Big Brown, the winner of the 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness. He is an ancestor of the winners of all three U.S. Triple Crown races in 2009—Mine That Bird in the Kentucky Derby, Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness, and Summer Bird in the Belmont.

 (Statue of Northern Dancer in Toronto, Canada, Wikipedia)

He was retired from stud in 1987 at the age of 26. He died in 1990 from complications due to colic.  Five years before his death an oak casket had been secretly commissioned for him and he was placed in the box covered with a turquoise cooler offset by gold piping with his name on it.  A refrigerated truck transported the casket to Canada for burial.  He's buried at Windfields Farm in Ontario.

The farm was closed in 2008 and the Taylor family partnered with developers to build residential homes on the east side of the property. As part of the downsizing, large portions were sold to the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and Durham College, which erected parking lots on the southeast corner of the farm. Some of the barns, the grave of Northern Dancer, plus a trillium forest where 15 of the famous Windfields horses are buried, have been preserved as a commemorative park.

(Windfield in Ontario, now gone, Pinterest)

 (Northern Dancer's Grave - Pinterest, Toronto Star)

Northern Dancer was placed midway between the barn where he was born and the barn where he learned to become a champion race horse.  Windfields' Maryland operation is now the site of North Stallion Station and Rowland Farm.

During the past forty years, a number of books have been written about Northern Dancer. One, by respected pedigree authority Avalyn Hunter, author of American Classic Pedigrees (1914–2002), recounts how Northern Dancer and his sons have established a royal dynasty that has profoundly dominated the international bloodstock market.

In 2012, Breyer released a portrait model of Northern Dancer sculpted by Jeanne Mellin Herrick.

He was, by some accounts, the greatest thoroughbred of all time.  His legacy will live on and time will tell. He stamped his prodigy with the will to win and they're still winning races even today.

1 comment:

  1. As of 2015 can Northern Dancer's grave be visited by the public? Is there a memorial for him and the other horses buried there?


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