Northern Dancer: small but with a lot of talent

Northern Dancer with his three white feet was quite small in stature. Some called him the “Little Dancer”, and others were skeptical of what he could accomplish when they first saw him.

He was bred and owned by Windfield Farms, a 1,500-acre stand of land in Ontario, Canada. Businessman E.P. Taylor presided over the place.

The most recognized names in Northern Dancer’s lineage were Native Dancer, Blenheim and Hyperion. Native Dancer lost only one race out of the 22 where he was entered.

Mr. Taylor brought Northern Dancer to the 1964 Kentucky Derby with an entourage of famous on-track helpers. The jockey would be Bill Hartack, the no-nonsense rider whose rise from his early days at Charles Town to be the country’s leading rider was done quickly and lasted long enough for him to win nine Triple Crown races.

The trainer was Horatio Luro, another figure whose legacy and accomplishments would still be noted 50 years later.

The field for the 1964 Kentucky Derby had some stars whose futures were to be full of stakes wins and fortune. The Scoundrel. Hill Rise. Owner Paul Mellon’s, Quadrangle, from Rokeby Stable in Loudoun County, Va.

Northern Dancer was No. 7 in the post parade. He was the betting public’s second-favorite behind only Hill Rise.

During the running of the Derby, both Northern Dancer and Hill Rise were placed near the lead. When the head of the long Churchill Downs stretch was reached, Northern Dancer had poked his head in front and gotten a two-length advantage.

Through the stretch, Hill Rise steadily chopped feet off that diminishing lead. But at the wire, jockey Hartack had managed to hold off the challenge and still had Northern Dancer’s neck in front.

The winning time of 2:00.0 was the fastest Derby ever run — until Secretariat came bustin’ through in 1973.

Hartack and Northern Dancer were able to win the Preakness Stakes. They came to the transplanted Belmont Stakes looking for the first Triple Crown since 1948.

Seven others faced Northern Dancer in that 12-furlong race that was run at Aqueduct in 1964 because the usual Belmont Park was under construction and being renovated and was unavailable. A record crowd in excess of 61,000 was on-site to see if the little brown package of thoroughbred dynamite could get the Triple Crown.

Rokeby Stable’s Quadrangle won the Belmont Stakes with Hartack and Northern Dancer finishing third.

Owner E.P. Taylor retired Northern Dancer at the end of 1964. The much-accomplished classics champion was only three years old.

Taylor stood his Derby winner at his breeding operation in the state of Maryland.

By the year 1974, Northern Dancer’s shadow of influence over racing was so large and widespread that no other stallion around the world had sired so many high-priced yearlings or on-track stakes champions.

An interesting fact showed that between the years 1974 and 1988, Northern Dancer had led the Keeneland (Ky.) July Yearling Sale some 12 times in average price of his progeny that sold. A Northern Dancer yearling named Snaafi Dancer sold at auction for $10 million.

At Keeneland in July of 1984, the 12 Northern Dancer yearlings auctioned averaged a record $3,446,666 per colt or filly.

The most mind-boggling fact about Northern Dancer the sire is that his stud fee for a handful of years starting in 1980 was $1 million per live foal.

No other thoroughbred in history has ever had a stud fee that high. In the halcyon days of thoroughbred racing in the early 1980s, the other most popular and successful sires could command $200,000-$250,000 fees. There may be three sires around the world in more current times that can get $250,000 per live foal.

The august National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) calls Northern Dancer “one of the most influential sires in history” as well as the 20th century’s best sire of sires. If you watch any televised discussions or history lessons being given prior to this year’s Kentucky Derby this Saturday, you’ll no doubt hear about the exploits of the little brown Canadian engine that could — “could” to the tune of $1 million per live foal.

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