NORTHERN DANCER: A SECOND CHANCE AT GREATNESS
I cannot write an epitaph for Northern Dancer — because his future could very well be more important to Canadian racing than his past.” The speaker was George F. T. Ryall, better known as Audax Minor, the almost legendary racetrack sage of The New Yorker magazine. His point was that Northern Dancer was only one (admittedly a very good one, perhaps the best) of many fine Canadian racehorses. But as a stallion this horse might give this country what it has not had in the past - and what few countries can boast - a truly superb thoroughbred bloodline stretching into the future and enriching the whole world of racing. “Don’t just take my word for this,” said Ryall. “Consider that within a few days of the announcement that Northern Dancer was being retired to stud because of a tendon injury, his services, at a fee of ten thousand dollars, had been booked up for three years ahead.” Here, in the quiet, authoritative style that has made him the most respected of turf writers, Ryall takes a knowing and affectionate look at the past, present and future of Canada’s favorite equine invalid.
THE STORY OF THE ugly duckling is repeated, with variations, year after year in racing. Northern Dancer, however, was never an ugly duckling. There is no vestige of the rise from obscurity motif so dear to tale tellers. He was bred to be a good racehorse, and from the outset he was a good racehorse. Indeed, he is unquestionably the best ever bred in Canada. Apart from the fact that he won the Queen's Plate in a gallop, he met and beat every States-bred threeyear-old of any importance in the Flamingo, the Florida Derby, the Blue Grass Stakes, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes — something no horse from the Dominion had done before — incidentally earning $490,012. But for bad luck in the Belmont Stakes, in which he finished third, and a mishap while training that ended his racing days in midsummer, he might have been the first horse to win a million in prize money in a single season. Actually, though, he is just beginning his career.
For a decade it has been the custom at Windfields Farm to have a pre-priced sale of all its yearlings every autumn, and for Mr. and Mrs. E. P. Taylor to race those that are not sold. In 1962 the usual number of owners, their trainers and advisers took stock of the lot and bought fifteen of the forty-eight horses offered. Among those left was a short stocky bay colt by Nearctic and Natalma, later to be named Northern Dancer. He had a tag of twenty-five thousand dollars on his halter, the high price of the sale because of his pedigree, but the chances are that he would have had no takers at half that, for he was only fourteen hands, two and a half inches high, the average size of a pony. When Northern Dancer was sent to trainer Horatio Luro the following spring along with other Windfields two-year-olds, none of the stablemen wanted to groom him: when a draft of young horses comes to a racing stable there is always competition among the men to take care of the more promising-looking ones for the obvious reason that when a horse wins a race there is always a cash present for the man who rubs him. Which only goes to show that experts can err and racetrackers are human.
This has happened before at Windfields Farm sales. Nobody wanted Victoria Park, who in my opinion was the best Canadianbred till Northern Dancer came along. Buyers ignored New Providence, who won the hundredth running of the Queen’s Plate the afternoon the Queen came to Woodbine. Nor would any horseman give seventy-five hundred dollars for Canebora, who was voted Canada’s Horse of the Year in 1963, and earned fifteen times that amount in his first two seasons of racing. Years ago, in Kentucky, the late John Hertz also used to put price tags on his yearlings. One of the colts left on his hands was the triple-crown winner Count Fleet, to whom some handicappers give a higher speed rating than they do to Man o’ War.
With the expectation that in thoroughbred breeding lightning quite often strikes twice in the same place, several buyers showed interest in the full sister of Northern Dancer, who was priced at one hundred thousand dollars — far and away the record for a racehorse in Canada — at Windfields Farm’s yearling sale last October. Because he had bought at the sale the year before, and thus under the Windfields system had priority, the bay filly went to Jean-Louis Lévesque, industrialist and president of Blue Bonnets racecourse in Montreal.
It has been said, and never denied, that the late Aga Khan, who was high on the list of winning owners in England for so many years, made his thoroughbred matings with the aid of astrology; but, by and large, the breeding of racehorses is an ordinary procedure. The fun of it and the headaches — the romance, if you like — come through more or less adventitious circumstances. If Natalma had not chipped
a bit of bone in one of her knees while training for the Kentucky Oaks the spring of I960, she might have won the race, but Canada would not have had Northern Dancer. As it was, Natalma was shipped home, and, although it was late in the season, was bred to Nearctic, who at Windfields they think is the best stallion in Canada.
On his pedigree this is quite likely. Nearco. his sire, was unbeaten on the racecourse and on three occasions was the leading stallion in England. Besides, Lady Angela, the dam of Nearctic, was endowed with such notable parents as the beautiful and brilliant Hyperion and Sister Sarah, the mother of four stakes winners. On one of his trips to Newmarket, England, E. P. Taylor bought Lady Angela from Martin Benson, the head of London’s fabulous off-course betting establishment known as Douglas Stewart Ltd., the slogan of which is “Duggie Never Qwes.” After the mare was bred to Nearco she was shipped to National Stud at Oshawa, Ont., where she foaled Nearctic. Natalma is by Native Dancer, the best two-, threeand four-year-old in America when he was racing, out of Almahmoud, by Mahmoud, winner of the Epsom Derby Stakes and a leading sire in the United States, so she has quite as impressive bloodlines. As a matter of fact, few horses his age have as many outstanding racers, the undisputed leaders in their years, in their pedigrees as Northern Dancer. It is interesting, too, to note that he is a first-foal. As a rule, first-foals are no great shakes — a subject too long and technical to go into here. There are exceptions, of course. One is the first-born of a young mare by Hyperion — his name is Citation.
Northern Dancer was foaled shortly after midnight on May 27, 1961, and neither Taylor nor Gil Darlington, the manager of National Stud, who has looked over innumerable newborn thoroughbreds, saw anything notable about him — except that according to the rules of racing, which prescribe that the age of a horse is reckoned as beginning on the first of January in the year in which it is foaled, he was nearly six months old. Later, Joe Thomas, the manager of the racing stable, thought he was an especially good-looking weanling, but as the months passed the Natalma colt, as he was called before he was named, failed to grow and his weight was below average. This was puzzling for he ate heartily and was full of bounce and go as he romped in his paddock.
After the yearling sale he remained at Windfields, where he was broken to wear a bridle, to be saddled, to carry an exercise boy, and to jog on the training track with colts of his age. Though he responded well to his lessons, as yet he impressed no one. The following March he was assigned to the division of the Windfields horses trained by Horatio Luro because Luro had handled Natalma, and it is recorded in the Señor’s day-book that on the trip from Windfields to Toronto’s Woodbine track, Northern Dancer kicked up a fuss in the van, in the course of which he rapped the coronary band of his left fore foot. (The coronary band is the junction of the horn and the hoof and a very sensitive part.) Months later a quarter crack, of which more anon, appeared on the same foot. And it was in the left foreleg that he suffered a bowed tendon.
The first time I saw Northern Dancer was that autumn at Aqueduct, where he had come after racing at Fort Erie, Woodbine, and Greenwood and winning five of his seven starts, including the prized Coronation Futurity. His objective was the Remsen Stakes, but to accustom him to the track, Luro ran him in the Sir Gaylord Purse, which he won by eight lengths from Bupers, fresh from his victory in The Futurity, New York’s Blue Ribband for two-year-olds. As he stood in the winner’s circle he struck me as rather smallish and squarely built, but well-proportioned and
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He’s rough but not mean. “He just bites men,” says the trainer, “not girls”
possessing great quality — a jaunty fellow with three white feet anti a blaze. A week later he led all the way in the Remscn. winning well in hand in the eye-opening time of 1 :353/5 for the mile. Needless to say, 1
came away convinced that I had seen the next winner of the Queen's Plate.
It was not generally known till some time later that, when he ran for the Rcmsen, Northern Dancer had a quarter crack. This is a fissure in the horn composing the wall of the hoof, which may be likened to a split in a fingernail past the quick, and
more often than not comes from galloping over hard ground. If not given attention, it can sideline a horse. So, after a veterinarian’s consultation it was decided to send for Bill Bane, a California blacksmith noted for his successful treatment of the ailment. One of his prize patients is Su Mac Lad, a well-known trotter. The crack
in Northern Dancer’s hoof was half an inch long and it could have been a bad one. Bane closed it with Neolite and a special kind of cement, then vulcanized the patch with the heat from an infrared lamp (the operation took all day), and from all accounts the foot has not troubled him since.
Taking one thing with another, Luro says that Northern Dancer was not a hard horse to train. Though he was full of beans, as the Señor puts it, he was willing and had a voracious appetite, but horsemen like what they call a good doer. In fact, from the first he was a little glutton. After finishing his ration of oats and hay, he would eat most of the straw bedding in his stall. Luro quickly put a stop to that, substituting a bedding of peat moss, and, to keep him from getting fat, gave him long slow gallops every day. This is the Argentine and English way of training, to which the Señor is accustomed, and I could not think of a better one to muscle up a young horse. Northern Dancer’s passion was (and still is) lump sugar. Luro says that his shoulders were always black and blue from Northern Dancer grabbing him to get at what he knew should be in his trainer’s pockets. (Citation, who also had a sweet tooth, had a different way of attracting attention and sugar. He pawed the sill of his stall door when anyone passed, to the great annoyance of his stähle because that sort of thing wore out the toes of his shoes.) Although Northern Dancer played rough, he was never mean. As Luro said once, “He just bites men. He does not bite the girls.” This is perfectly true. Nevertheless, it is remembered at Windfields the perturbation the afternoon that Mrs. E. H. Augustus, who bred Natalma, announced she was going to feed Northern Dancer some sugar. She did — and he took it off the palm of her hand as gently as could be hoped.
Trainers have a saying that a good horse does everything, or nearly everything, right. Though Northern Dancer was beaten in his first start as a three-year-old, resulting from being bumped and crowded for most of the six furlongs, he won his next, the Flamingo Stakes, easily and followed it up with five more victories in succession. It is generally agreed that the Kentucky Derby was his greatest performance, for the mile and a quarter was run in two minutes flat, breaking the track record set by Decidedly (trained by Luro) in the race two years before. Especially it revealed his ability to quicken his pace intensively and at once when extra speed was needed. (Like kicking in the supercharger of a sports car.) Only top horses can do that. He showed it again in the Queen’s Plate. As all who saw that race remember, he was drawn nearest the rails and came out of the starting gate slowly. Passing the stand the first time, he was far behind the leaders, and rounding the first turn was completely boxed in. Here he was in a tight spot, for if any of the closely bunched runners in front of him had swerved or stumbled there is no telling what might have happened. Going
into the backstretch, Hartack. who was riding him, eased him back till he was last, then steered for the outside and clear sailing. Straightened away. Northern Dancer produced an astonishing burst of speed and, passing the seven other colts as though tney were standing, went on to win by seven lengths or so easing up. In my opinion it was his finest performance.
A fortnight before he had finished third in the Belmont Stakes to Quadrangle. whom he had beaten in the Flamingo, the Kentucky Derby, and the Preakncss, and Roman Brother, whom he had beaten in the Flamingo, the Florida Derby, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. There is no intention here of going into a tedious explanation — and there are several — of that defeat. In all of the end-of-the-season polls Northern Dancer was voted the best three-yearold in 1964. I string along with that.
After the Queen’s Plate it was his stable’s purpose to give Northern Dancer a rest at Belmont Park before readying him for the Travers Stakes a Saratoga in mid-August and another meeting with Quadrangle. But the Classic Stakes, at Arlington Park
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HOW TO BREED HORSES AND-MAYBESOME WINNERS
THE BREEDING of horses is still a long way from being reduced to a confident science, but with so much money invested in it — the total value of Canadian horse farms and breeding stock stands close to $150 million today — horsemen diligentis observe the few proven principles they have discovered for producing winning race horses. They avoid, to begin with, inbreeding—the breeding of sister to brother, uncle to niece, or of any other combination connected by less than five or six degrees of consanguinity; instead, they practise line breeding—breeding horses w'hose common ancestor is at least two or three generations back. Even in line breeding, it’s essential that the common ancestor not have a seriously weakening trait that, with the combination of his descendants, could reappear. It’s just as necessary, too, to ensure that whatever weakness the mating stallion may have demonstrated in his racing days is compensated for by a corresponding strength in the mares — and vice versa. The best horses, in the experience of Joe Thomas, the head trainer at E. P. Taylor’s Windfields Farm, come from mating an imported mare to a native stallion, or a native mare to an imported stallion; in that way. the common ancestor is removed In several generations and the union produces a strong strain, or what Thomas calls “hybrid vigor.” And that’s why the lineup of foreign mares waiting on Northern Dancer at the National Stud Farm in Oshawa. Ont., is apt to be a long one for the next few horse generations.
in Chicago, looked such a soft touch. 1 he distance, one mile, was just the ticket to wind him up for the Travers, and. not at all incidentally, the purse was in the one-hundred-thousand-dollar bracket. It is customary to give a racer a workout at home before shipping him to a distant track, so Northern Dancer did an easy gallop of seven furlongs over the main course. It was raining anil muddy, but nobody saw the colt make a single misstep. However, as he was being cooled out.
Euro noticed a mark or a spot the size of a half dollar on Northern Dancer's left foreleg. The stable vet was called in, examined it. said that it might have been cuffed by a hind foot, and prescribed a mild poultice. Next day the spot had grown larger. Later, it was diagnosed as a bowed tendon.
This is one of the dreaded disabilities that can attack a racehorse — a rupture of the sheath of the tendon which controls the action of the foot.
and caused by a blow or excessive strain. The injury is marked by a curved protuberance that looks like a bowstring drawn back from the wood of a bow and from which it gets its name. A horse thus afflicted may run again, and many do, but he seldom, if ever, returns to his top form. I daresay that after a long rest, for he was not badly bowed, Northern Dancer could have come back to the races and beaten everything that he was likely to meet at Woodbine anil
Fort Erie this season, after which he would have been retired to the stud. Still, there would always be the danger in a race that in trying to save his bad leg he would put too much strain on his good one. or that because of the tremendous energy he put into running he might break down completely, and that would be most unfortunate.
It is a popular belief that racing is a rich man's pastime. E. P. Taylor is no dilettante in that fascinating and unpredictable game. I remember his Cosgrave Stable, trained by the Alexandra boys, when he was not so rich as he is now, and Windfields, whom he named for his estate and his stable, winning at New York’s old Jamaica track twenty years ago. The loss of Northern Dancer as a racehorse was great, but the decision to retire him to the stud straightaway was no surprise to me. Though he is a practical man. Taylor has a keen feeling for his horses, knows them as individuals, understands and appreciates their characteristics, their qualities, and their failings when he plans their careers.
Northern Dancer must have at least five crops of foals before any definite conclusion that he is another Bunty Lawless can be reached. His value at the moment — he is insured for a million and a half dollars — does not lie in the number and class of winners he will get, but the influence he will exert on Canadian racing, for he is something of an idol. He doesn't get as much fan mail as he did last summer, but letters from admirers come daily to Windfields Farm, requesting pictures and asking how he's getting on; high-school students write, saying they want to do themes about him. The afternoon 1 saw him at National Stud, he looked shaggy in his winter coat, but his whole appearance expressed his individual attributes — courage, stamina, robustness, and that air of quality outstanding horses emanate, which is impossible to describe.
In a loose-box on the other side of the barn was Victoria Park, who, back in I960 finished second in the Flamingo, the Blue Grass Stakes, and the Preakness; third in the Florida Derby and the Kentucky; and might have won at least one of the spring classics with a little bit of luck. Curiously, also, that July he had a mishap while training for the Hollywood Derby and was retired. Searchers after coincidence might make something of that. ★