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."
Because he was shorter than the mares he would mount, Northern Dancer was led up a plywood ramp with a no-skid surface in the breeding shed.
"He was a very enthusiastic stallion who covered as many as 36 mares a year," Hunter said. "He was high energy, with the mentality of a dominant herd stallion. He wanted things his way and woe to you if he thought you were out of line."
Once, he was led from his stall to meet visitors at the farm. The horse had other expectations.
"When he realized he wasn't going to the breeding shed, he reared up, clopped the groom on the head and opened a gash that took 20 stitches," Hunter said.
Northern Dancer was a handful to the end, said Ben Miller, manager of the stallion division at Windfields for 20 years until it closed in 1987.
"He was a bouncing ball, a stick of dynamite, the Jack Russell Terrier of thoroughbreds," Miller said. "He was always trying to get into something. Once fed, the greatest sire of the 20th century would put his front feet in those tubs that hung 31/2 feet off the floor and look out of his stall at you, like he was taller than he actually was. Or he'd get hung up in his hay nets. Nothing he did was laid-back, on or off the track."
His tomfoolery spilled into the paddock, said Alan McCarthy, the veterinarian who treated Northern Dancer.
"When a group of equine science students from Delaware came to look at the stallions, one girl got too close to the fence. The horse grabbed her by the back of her jacket and snatched her 3 feet up in the air," McCarthy said.
By 25, Northern Dancer had lost his oomph to breed. Few stallions serve past 20, the vet said. But this one was never sick until felled by colic at 29.
On Nov. 16, 1990, McCarthy euthanized the old pensioner. He was placed in a satin-lined oak casket, lifted into a refrigerated van and driven to Canada for burial. In 1999, that nation issued a postage stamp in Northern Dancer's honor.
He's remembered in Maryland as well. At Northview Stallion Station, where Windfields Farm once stood, the main thoroughfare is Northern Dancer Drive.
His DNA? That's gone viral.
"You'll find his pedigree in most top horses today," Hunter said. "No one could have anticipated the explosive impact that Northern Dancer had. Of all well-bred horses with great racing records, four out of five will just plain fail at stud, and one in 10 will become a pretty good stallion. Northern Dancer was a once-in-a-century phenomenon.
"He didn't just produce a lot of stakes winners, he took the whole breed and swung it in another direction."
With everything he had.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun