Kentucky Derby

Northern Dancer's run: 2 minutes on the track, 50 years in Thoroughbred bloodlines

Northern Dancer and jockey Bill Hartack, on rail, hit the wire first in the 1964 Kentucky Derby, nosing out Hill Rise and Willie Shoemaker. The time of 2 minutes flat stands as the third-fastest ever.
Northern Dancer and jockey Bill Hartack, on rail, hit the wire first in the 1964 Kentucky Derby, nosing out Hill Rise and Willie Shoemaker. The time of 2 minutes flat stands as the third-fastest ever. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Fifty years ago, a record was set in the Kentucky Derby.

The horse that blazed that record was foaled not amid the green pastures of Central Kentucky, but in the cooler clime of Ontario, Canada.

A bay colt named Northern Dancer earned the roses in 2 minutes flat in 1964. That record would hold until 1973, when Secretariat won in 1:59:40, a time that remains unbroken.

The impact of Northern Dancer, who also won the 1964 Preakness Stakes, would extend beyond the track. He would become one of the most influential international sires in Thoroughbred history.

His offspring earned more money and won more major stakes races than any other sire in the 20th century, and his influence continues. His progeny transformed Keeneland's yearling sale into an international marketplace, drawing buyers from all over the world.

Seattle Dancer, a grandson, was sold as a Keeneland yearling for $13.1 million in 1985.

Former Keeneland chairman Ted Bassett wrote in his autobiography that from 1974 to 1988, the sons and daughters of Northern Dancer fetched the highest prices of all sires at the yearling sales 12 times, "and that constitutes a record that may last forever."

All from a horse whose diminutive stature prompted sportswriter Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times to write this classic description:

"Northern Dancer is the kind of colt who, if you saw him in your living room, you'd send for a trap and put cheese in it. He's so little, a cat would chase him. But he's so plucky there's barely room in him for his heart. His legs are barely long enough to keep his tail off the ground. He probably takes a hundred more strides than anyone else, but he's harder to pass than a third martini."

Bruce Walker, publicity director for Woodbine racetrack in Canada from 1960 to 1997, attended the yearling sale there when Northern Dancer was offered for $25,000. He said few people were interested in the colt because he was undersized.

"But several trainers were intrigued by the colt's breeding and the sire and dam's race record," Walker wrote in an email message. "One trainer in particular, Carl Chapman, wanted the colt. He liked the Princequillo influence in the dam's pedigree, since he said he had worked as a groom for trainer Horatio Luro when Luro had Princequillo. Chapman could not convince his owner, Larkin Maloney, to buy the little colt."

"Who wants a runt?" Maloney grunted, as Walker tells it. Instead, Maloney opted for a big, burly youngster he named Brockton Boy. "Brockton Boy won a couple of minor stakes," Walker wrote.

Northern Dancer didn't sell, so he became a part of the racing stable of Windfields Farm in Canada.

That Northern Dancer's influence was felt at all is something of a gift, because he came very close to being gelded.

Joe Thomas, a former Lexington resident who managed Northern Dancer's stud career, recalled this episode to the Lexington Herald-Leader before he died in 1984.

Like his sire and great sire, Nearctic and Nearco, Northern Dancer could be unruly.

"He was feisty," Thomas said, "so Horatio Luro (his trainer) wanted to castrate him. He wasn't mean, but he would wheel and do some tricks."

What saved him, and the course of the Thoroughbred breeding industry, was an inconsequential horse named Roman Flare. Windfields Farm owner E.P. Taylor had bought Roman Flare at Saratoga in 1961, and, as Thomas recalled, "he was a mean, willful horse."

Luro convinced Taylor that if Roman Flare was gelded, it would calm his attitude and make him more manageable.

"So we castrated him, but before he got back to the races," he acted up again and "bowed a tendon," Thomas said. Roman Flare ended his career in a $1,500 claiming race.

When the question of castrating Northern Dancer came up, Taylor said, "It didn't work before, why do it now?"

So Northern Dancer's stud career was saved.

In 1965, with 14 wins in 18 lifetime starts (and never out of the money), Northern Dancer was retired to stud at Windfields Farm in Canada. His initial stud fee was $10,000 for a live foal.

Ed Bowen, former editor of The Blood-Horse magazine and the author of 19 books on Thoroughbred horses, said Northern Dancer's first crop of foals "came out running."

"His first crop, he had a horse named Viceregal who was undefeated and was horse of the year in Canada," Bowen said. "His first foals ran so well. Northern Dancer had that aura about him right away."

In 1969, "The Dancer" was moved to Windfields Farm near Chesapeake City, Md. It was there that his stud career took off. His offspring included Lyphard, Danzig, The Minstrel, Topsider, Northern Baby, Storm Bird, Magesterial, El Gran Señor, Shareef Dancer, Secreto and Ajdal.

Meanwhile, Europeans took notice in 1970, when another Northern Dancer colt, Nijinsky II, became the first horse in 35 years to win the English Triple Crown.

Because his genetic traits were in such demand, Northern Dancer's stud fee soared to as much as $1 million without the guarantee of a live foal. During this period, People magazine commented that Northern Dancer was the only celebrity who could earn $1 million before breakfast.

His offspring became the main attractions at the most select sales, and they were the object of fierce bidding wars.

Perhaps the most famous of these was in 1983 at Keeneland, when Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum of Dubai outbid British sports magnate Robert Sangster for a Northern Dancer colt at $10.2 million.

Maktoum named the colt Snaafi Dancer, but the horse didn't live up to the price paid. Snaafi Dancer never raced, and he was a dud in the breeding shed.

Northern Dancer never had a son or daughter win the Kentucky Derby. But Derby winners who had his blood in their pedigrees were Ferdinand (1986), Lil E. Tee (1992), Sea Hero (1993), Thunder Gulch (1995), Charismatic (1999), Fusaichi Pegasus (2000), Monarchos (2001), Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones (2004), Street Sense (2007), Big Brown (2008), Mine That Bird (2009), Super Saver (2010), Animal Kingdom (2011) and I'll Have Another (2012). Monarchos ran the second-fastest Derby, edging out his great-granddad.

In all, Northern Dancer sired 635 foals over 23 seasons. Of those, 80 percent (511) raced, and 80 percent of those (410) were winners.

Of his 146 stakes winners, 26 were declared champions in Ireland, England, France, Italy, the United States and Canada.

"More currently, there was Sadler's Wells, who was a Northern Dancer stallion who was a leading stallion in England and Ireland," Bowen said. "And then he was the sire of Galileo, who is a leading sire today.

"It's just been an amazing sequence. And it just shows you the mystery of genetics," Bowen said. "Northern Dancer had some full brothers, but they weren't Northern Dancer. Vice Regent (a son of Northern Dancer) wasn't a great racehorse, but then he became a great sire, too."

Northern Dancer's days at stud ended in 1987. He was humanely destroyed in Maryland on Nov. 16, 1990, after a severe attack of colic. (Just the day before, leading sire Alydar was humanely destroyed at Calumet Farm in Lexington after his right hind leg was broken.)

Northern Dancer was buried at Windfields Farm in Oshawa, Ontario, midway between the barn where he was born and the barn where he began his days as a stallion.

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