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Northern Dancer: A Breed-Shaper

Few horses have the profound influence on the Thoroughbred that Northern Dancer does.

Northern Dancer after the Blue Grass Stakes, 4.23.64. Bill Hartack up. This image is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced in print or electronically without written permission of the Keeneland Library.

Northern Dancer was born on May 27th, 1961 in Canada. His breeder, Eddie P. Taylor, had paired the Native Dancer mare Natalama with Nearctic. The mating produced a flashy, bay colt with a pedigree that suggested greatness. Northern Dancer grew into a small and stocky horse that almost looked more like a Quarter Horse than he did a Thoroughbred. At maturity he reached 15.1hh. Although he had a dominant temperament, he was never considered to be a “mean” horse.

As a yearling, Northern Dancer failed to reach his reserve at a sale that Taylor held to promote his breeding program. Thus, Northern Dancer stayed in the hands of his breeder. Taylor sent his horse to trainer Horatio Luro who suggested that Northern Dancer should be gelded. Taylor refused, unaware that one day this would have been one of the most important decisions he ever made.

Northern Dancer made his debut at two-years old with apprentice jockey Ron Turcotte in the irons. Although Turcotte was instructed to not use the whip on the colt, Turcotte used it at the sixteenth pole anyways. That tap sent Northern Dancer into an explosive run and they soared to the wire 8 lengths ahead of the rest of the field.

On August 17th, Northern Dancer was entered into the Vandal Stakes. This time, Turcotte piloted Ramblin’ Man while Paul Bohenko was in Dancer’s irons. At the start of the race, Northern Dancer got into a speed duel and Turcotte was able to bring Ramblin’ Man home first.

His next start came in the Summer Stakes where he won wire to wire despite struggling with the “bog-like” surface of the track. The next month he was entered into the Cup and Saucer Stakes on Woodbine’s turf course. Northern Dancer carried the top weight of 124 pounds.

He tired just before the wire, losing by ¾ of a length to a longshot named Grand Carcon. He carried the top weight again in the Bloordare Purse. Despite the weight, Northern Dancer won by 1 ¾ lengths over a horse named Northern Flight. The rest of the field was 25 lengths behind them.

Just five days after the Bloordare Purse, Northern Dancer faced a 14 horse field in Canada’s richest race for two-year olds: The Coronation Futurity. He won by 6 ¼ lengths. Despite the victory, Luro believed that Ron Turcotte was not able to control the headstrong Northern Dancer and was no longer allowed to pilot the horse. After winning the Carleton Stakes in his next out, Northern Dancer returned to the barn bleeding due to a quarter crack.

Nevertheless, Northern Dancer was shipped to the United States to run in the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct. To prepare for the Remsen, Northern Dancer won the Sir Gaylord Purse by eight lengths. Due to his quarter crack becoming more pronounced, he was fitted with a special shoe that would stabilize his foot. The shoe seemed to work for him and he won the Remsen Stakes by two lengths.

In his juvenile season, Northern Dancer had won seven of nine starts and had earned the title of Canadian Juvenile Champion. Before his three-year old season began, Northern Dancer was given time to rest so his quarter crack could heal. By January, he was back in training and preparing for a campaign in the United States.

Northern Dancer with Horatio Luro on pony, 4.6.1964. This image is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced in print or electronically without written permission of the Keeneland Library.

His first start of the 1964 season came in a six furlong prep with jockey Bob Ussery in Northern Dancer’s irons for the first time. The race proved extremely difficult for Northern Dancer. He was bumped at the start and was at the back of the pack for the majority of the race. Once he recovered and was able to start picking off horses, he became trapped behind a wall of horses and finished third.

Although Ussery had been instructed by Luro to not use the whip in the race, Ussery had given Northern Dancer a few taps in the final strides. Because of this, Ussery was criticized by Luro and Ussery was not put back on Northern Dancer.

To prepare for the Kentucky Derby, Northern Dancer was entered into the Flamingo Stakes. With Bill Shoemaker up, Northern Dancer soared home to a seven length victory. He then won the Mrs. Florida Purse at Gulfstream by four lengths and then the Florida Derby by a length.

Bill Shoemaker chose to ride Hill Rise in the Kentucky Derby instead of Northern Dancer as he believed Hill Rise had a better chance at winning. The decision caused Luro to never offer Shoemaker the mount ever again. Instead, Bill Hartack became Northern Dancer’s jockey for the remainder of the horse’s career.

In his last start before the Kentucky Derby, Northern Dancer won the Blue Grass Stakes by a ½ length. Because of the slow Blue Grass Stakes time, Northern Dancer was sent off as the second choice behind Hill Rise in the Kentucky Derby. In an exciting stretch drive, Northern Dancer held off Hill Rise to win by a neck. His record of 2:00 stood until Secretariat beat it in 1973.

Two weeks after winning the Kentucky Derby, Northern Dancer was entered into the Preakness Stakes. Again, he went off as the second favorite to Hill Rise. Northern Dancer won the Preakness by 2 ½ lengths.

The Belmont Stakes proved to be tough for Northern Dancer. His owner, Eddie Taylor, believed that the distance would be no problem for him. Luro, however, had doubts on the horse’s ability to perform at his best at more than 8 or 9 furlongs. Luro was correct; Northern Dancer finished third, beaten by Quadrangle and Roman Brother. After his loss in the Triple Crown, Northern Dancer returned to Woodbine in Canada to run in the Queen’s Plate. He easily won by 7 ½ lengths and remains the only horse to have won both the Kentucky Derby and the Queen’s Plate.

Northern Dancer was shipped back to New York to be trained at Belmont. During a workout here in July, Northern Dancer bowed a tendon. He did not respond to treatment and so the decision was made to retire him. At the end of his career, he held a record of 18:14-2-2 and had earned over $580,000. He had never run worse than third.

Northern Dancer was retired to Taylor’s Windfields Farm in Oshawa, Ontario. He stood for $10,000 in 1965. In his second crop, Northern Dancer sired 1970 English Triple Crown winner Nijinsky. Because of this, Northern Dancer was shipped to Taylor’s Maryland branch of Windfields Farm where he would remain for the rest of his career at stud. Over time, Northern Dancer’s stud fee steadily increased. By 1984, a mating with Northern Dancer cost $500,000 and there was no guarantee that a live foal would result from that mating. From 1985-1987, Northern Dancer’s stud fee was privately negotiated with a single season going for $1 million at auction. He was pensioned at the age of 26 and was euthanized at the age of 29 on November 16th, 1990.

Of 645 named foals, Northern Dancer produced 411 winners and 147 stakes winners. Among these horses were Lyphard, Danzig, Dixieland Band, Storm Bird, Vice Regent, Sadler’s Wells, and more. His sons produced horses like Ferdinand (by Nijinsky), Danzig Connection (by Danzig), Gate Dancer (Sovereign Dancer), and more.

Justify, American Pharoah, I’ll Have Another, California Chrome, Animal Kingdom, Shackleford, Rachel Alexandra, Big Brown, Mine That Bird, and more are all inbred to Northern Dancer. He appeared at least once in the pedigree of every horse in the 2018 Kentucky Derby.

It is clear that Northern Dancer is one of the most influential stallions in the Thoroughbred breed (although some experts say that Northern Dancer has passed down some unsoundeness to today’s Thoroughbreds). His career on the racetrack and his career at stud are a permanent part of racing history. His is a name that can never be forgotten.


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