Northern Dancer

Northern Dancer (Baltimore Sun / February 21, 1985)

If there's a heaven for horses, then California Chrome's great-great-grandsire will be peering down at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday to see whether his progeny can do what he did 50 years ago: win the Preakness and, with it, the first two legs of racing's Triple Crown.

Even then, Northern Dancer ran as if he had wings. After smashing the track record in the Kentucky Derby, the stubby bay colt from Canada captured the 1964 Preakness by 21/4 lengths, pulling away in the stretch from his more classic-looking rivals.

Northern Dancer's trip to Maryland wouldn't be his last. In 1968, he settled in to stand at Windfields Farm in Cecil County. There, for 19 years, he serviced mares who cranked out thoroughbreds the likes of whom the racing world had never seen — including Nijinsky II (1970 English Triple Crown), El Gran Senor (twice European champion) and The Minstrel (British Horse of the Year).

All told, Northern Dancer sired a record 147 stakes winners and offspring who sold for $183.7 million. In 1983, one of his yearlings brought a then-record $10.2 million at the Keeneland (Ky.) Sales. In his prime, his stud fee reached $1 million, regardless of whether the foal lived.

"His semen is literally worth its weight in gold," Windfields manager Joe Hickey once said.

Though he never fathered a winner of an American Triple Crown race — many of his high-priced kin were shipped off to European tracks — Northern Dancer's grandsons and great-grandsons have won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. This year, for the first time, every Derby starter — 19 in all — bore bloodlines that trace back to the homely half-pint whose libido far exceeded his looks.

"He was a little guy, but he didn't know it," said Avalyn Hunter, author of The Kingmaker: How Northern Dancer Founded a Racing Dynasty. "He stood only 15 hands 2 inches, but, as far as he knew, he was the biggest stallion on the western plains and he was going to dominate everyone and everything, from the racetrack to the breeding shed.

"His win in the Derby is pretty typical of that. Hill Rise [the favorite] kept coming at him, but Dancer never let him past and won by a neck. That's often what makes good stallions, though you can't predict which ones will put that kind of 'want' in their offsprings' bosoms."

His record Derby time (two minutes) stood until broken by Secretariat in 1973. Still, racegoers weighed Northern Dancer's stature and made him second choice at Pimlico. He won handily, under jockey Bill Hartack, becoming the second Preakness winner to be foaled outside the United States.

All told, Northern Dancer won 14 of 18 starts and never finished out of the money. A disappointing third in the 11/2- mile Belmont Stakes — a race that taxed his stamina — he ran one more time, in Canada. Dancer won the prestigious Queen's Plate despite an injured tendon and retired with $580,000 in earnings.

It was more than his owner, Canadian multimillionaire E.P. Taylor could have asked of the colt — a grandson of the great Native Dancer, raised in Maryland — whom he'd tried unsuccessfully to sell for $25,000 as a yearling. (In 1980, the Taylor-led syndicate turned down an offer of $40 million for Northern Dancer, then 20.)

"That horse had to overcome a whole lot of stuff," said Muriel Lennox, author of Northern Dancer: The Legend and His Legacy. "He was a very small dynamo, and it was said he was so short that his tail dragged on the ground.

"He raced lame, with incompetent training and with seven different jockeys. But there was a bloodymindedness, a determination about him. He reminded you of a little Mafia guy that you see in the movies. He didn't have a machine gun, but he was just that tough."

His build proved a plus on the track. Half a century ago, Lennox said, "people didn't like to run little horses. Thoroughbreds were expected to be long-legged and beautiful. Northern Dancer looked like a lead pony; he came up under the chin of Hill Rise. But those short legs gave him the mobility to maneuver better in races."

When he retired in October 1964, Canada gave Northern Dancer a rousing send-off. The mayor of Toronto presented him with a key to the city, made from a carrot. The horse ate it. Then he took one final lap around Woodbine Racetrack, ridden by Ron Turcotte, who'd been aboard in his first four victories as a 2-year-old.

"I loved that horse," said Turcotte, 72, then an apprentice jockey who'd go on to ride Secretariat and a Hall of Fame career. "The first time I rode Dancer, we were going head-to-head with another horse and he was kind of dogging it. I tapped him once, he took off like a bullet and won by seven lengths.

"That woke him up. He was really a man's horse after that."

His virility was a given. At Windfields Farm in Chesapeake City, where he stood for nearly two decades, Northern Dancer played his part to the hilt.

"He didn't walk to the breeding shed, ready to do business. He pranced," said Joe Bench, then a stallion groom there.

"If a mare was on her way to the farm, Dancer sensed it before anyone," Lennox said. "When you heard him kicking the wall of his stall — Bam! Bam! Bam! — you'd look at your watch and time it to see how long before the van pulled in. He was determined to be the first guy to the party, the one the girls would see."