Northern Dancer, The Super Stud For All Times

by | 01.25.2016 | 10:54pm
Northern Dancer, with owner-breeder E.P. Taylor, left, and trainer Horatio Luro

All hail American Pharoah after his latest conquest, unanimous “Horse of the Year” honors! And in so doing it might be time to pay homage once again to one of his ancestors, even one five generations back. Any racing fan worth his salt remembers the name Northern Dancer. It always jumps off the page at me whenever the “old boy” is remembered even if it's (in parentheses) as a grandsire or great­-grandsire or great­-great­-grandsire or great-great­-great-grandsire. Time spent with “the Dancer,” many moons ago, ranks right up there with time spent with Secretariat during his road to the Triple Crown.

Northern Dancer's progeny long ago became stars in their own galaxies, as Frank Mitchell, the bloodlines expert, has repeatedly pointed out on this website. He cited the dominating sire of the end of the last century, “Storm Cat, the blocky, dark bay son of Storm Bird (by Northern Dancer)” and a half dozen of Storm Cat's sons and daughters who produced prominent winners in 2015.

And Ray Paulick wrote recently about rising stallion stud fees to where $100,000 is no longer an exclusive category. Back in the day, Northern Dancer opened the door to that trend, too. Against all odds, he set the bar in breeding like no other Thoroughbred before or since.

On a bright spring day nearly 30 years ago, it was April of 1986, I took a CBS News television crew and commentator Heywood Hale Broun down to Windfields Farm in Maryland to look in on the “old boy,” who, as he approached the ripe old age of 25, commanded as high as a $1,000,000 stud fee for one assignation ­­­– no live foal guaranteed. The farm manager told us the million-dollar fee came about when a syndicate put the service up for bid and that the winner's “hands were clammy and he broke out in a lather…virtually…the tension of the moment was so intense.”

As we entered the stallion barn, there was Northern Dancer, his head perked, wondering who these outliers were. He was barely over 15 hands but very muscular across the chest. When he saw the camera he began to act like a kid in a candy store even though the calendar said he was no kid anymore. His groom, Ron Paris, described him as, “a lot more hyper…a lot more high strung than a lot of the horses.” When Woodie Broun asked him to describe the old warrior in human terms, he offered, “kind of like (the centenarian actor) George Burns, yeah?”

Just then a van with a mare aboard could be seen and heard out the side door headed for the “mating” barn. Northern Dancer's head jumped up and he whinnied loudly. His date for the day had arrived. Unlike today's stallions who are much more active, he covered only about 40 mares a year, and his percentage of foals produced compared to those who won stake races, is the highest on record. Even more impressive, his total stud fees soared well beyond $100,000,000, immeasurable in today's dollars.

“He pretty much changed the mind's eye of what a thoroughbred should be.” That was Joe Hickey who, back then, was Windfields' pointman for Northern Dancer. “A short, stocky, very strong type. I know European horsemen, when they first saw him, couldn't believe this was Northern Dancer as opposed to Secretariat who was cast in a heroic mold.”

A big fan of Northern Dancer was Seth Hancock, master of Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky., who syndicated Secretariat. Woodie Broun asked him about the million-dollar stud fee. “Your mare is serviced and beyond that there is no guarantee. All Northern Dancer has to do, more or less, is show up. His seasons are much like fine wine or rare jewels or coins. It's amazing the way his popularity has held up over the years.” He died a few years later in 1990, but his memory lingers on.

He was Canadian­-bred by the the industrialist E.P. Taylor. Offered for sale for $25,000 at his yearling sale, there were no takers so Taylor took him back. According to Woodie, “he was so rough and unruly that his owner considered the horse's castration.” Two years later, in 1964, he just missed winning the Triple Crown when he finished third in the Belmont. Lifetime he won 14 of 18 races, never finishing out of the money.

But his signature triumph was in the Derby. Joe Hickey was still in awe, “he was in against a towering giant name Hill Rise,” the favorite with Bill Shoemaker aboard. “and it looked going in that he would have to take two steps for every one that Hill Rise took.” But Northern Dancer gutted it out and held on to win at the wire in record time proving that, as Hickey remembered, “a good horse can hold his own in any company.”

John Sparkman, a broodmare barn foreman at Windfields during the Dancer's formative years, described him as, “the biggest little horse I ever met, both in body and in personality.” Writing in the Daily Racing Form, Sparkman said that from the outset, he was, “the master of all he surveyed and you had best never forget it. Always bright, friendly and engaged, he nevertheless made it clear that he consented to follow your lead only because it was in his interest.”

Thirty years ago, when Northern Dancer was nearing the end of his career as a stallion, we had the rare pleasure of looking out onto a field in Maryland where mares and their babies, all of them sons and daughters of Northern Dancer, were gambolling to their hearts' delight.

A few weeks later, as we readied our story for broadcast there was an upset in the Kentucky Derby. On “Sunday Morning” the next day, Charles Kuralt paused in his introduction, looked into the camera, and said this, “You might have predicted that some day a grandson of Northern Dancer would also win the Derby. And yesterday one did, Ferdinand, a longshot at seventeen to one, but one with great blood coursing in his veins. Heywood Hale Broun's story is entitled “Super Stud.”

Amen to that.

E.S “Bud” Lamoreaux III is a creator and former executive producer of CBS News Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt.  He won four Eclipse Awards for national television excellence.

  • Bellwether

    He knew what that sound meant when those vans came rolling in!!!…

  • Kathy Young

    My OTTB, Echo Dancer (Eastern Echo x Cherry Lady x Bold Lad) has Northern Dancer on the top. Eastern Echo was by Damascus and out of the Northern Dancer mare Wild Applause. At age 22, my horse has that “kid in the candy store” attitude. Now I know where it probably came from :o) Wonderful story of a grand old man. Thanks, Ray.

  • Michael Castellano

    Great article and story. I was a junior in H.S. and had a brother teacher from Kentucky who loved the ponies. He allowed a draw that year in the class for the Derby, winners get no more homework for the rest of the year. I knew nothing about horses then, but I won the pool cause I had drawn “Northern Dancer.” Think it was 1964?

    • CarolinaJude

      Yep it WAS 1964 because I was going to be 10 in 4 months and I remember it being the first Kentucky Derby I ever saw on television. I credit Northern Dancer for getting me interested in racing………………I always loved horses but still to this day I consider him the one responsible for the “racing bug” that bit me!

      • Kathy Weightman

        Oh, you and I are kinsmen – I was almost 10 also, although I had seen the Derby the previous year. I picked Northern Dancer to win, and I was hooked!

  • Tinky

    Nice post, however:

    “[Frank Mitchell] cited the dominating sire of the end of the last century…Storm Cat”

    I’m fairly certain that Frank would not have phrased it that way, as while Storm Cat did dominate the American stallion ranks, Sadler’s Wells, standing in Ireland, was unquestionably a better and more important sire during the same period.

    The latter’s top-line influence will also continue to be seen at the highest level, while that of the former’s continues to recede.

    • Tink, what if Vincent hadn’t taken a shine to ND?!

      • Tinky

        Good point, Bill. Might have changed everything.

      • Larry Ensor

        I agree excellent point. It should also be noted that Northern Dancer was a “dirt horse”. Go figure.

        • Perhaps without M. V. O’B’s “nurture” of the first few the undoubtedly superior “nature” of the NDs might not have been spotted. Pedigree buffs please note.

      • LongTimeEconomist

        I seem to remember that, even though Northern Dancer was quite small at only 15 hands, most of the ones that Vincent picked out and succeeded with were much larger.

        • I think you’re right – but I’m always sceptical about 15 hh horses: although we bought perhaps smaller than most, I never had one just 15hh. As the actress said to the bishop “the odd inch makes all the difference”.

    • Meg Hiers

      While not as dominant as Sadlers wells, I wouldn’t call Storm Cat retreated per se. Giants Causeway has been turning out some stud sons in America of late and has Sharmardal and Lope de Vega in Europe. Harlan’s Holiday has some good sire sons. Scat Daddy has likely left a few that will emerge as well. Bernstein could be carried on by Karakontie. Bluegrass Cat is doing fine in a regional market.

      • Tinky

        Giant’s Causeway is a good sire, but not remotely in the class of either Montjeu (sire of a record four Derby winners) or Galileo (probably the best sire since Northern Dancer).

        To your broader point, yes, Storm Cat, through sheer numbers, will still be found in pedigrees for some time to come. But in terms of his impact in the highest class races, the ones that you mention pale in comparison to the sons and grandsons of Sadler’s Wells.

        • Meg Hiers

          To be honest with you, I think Danzig is the more prepotent son of Northern Dancer, even in Europe. His lines have proven their ability at all distances and surfaces.

          • Tinky

            Depends if you want middle-distance Classic types, or sprinter/milers. Sadler’s Wells was/is a far greater influence with the former, while Danzig lines have been outstanding in the latter.

            In any case, Storm Cat, who remains seriously overrated, pales in comparison to either.

          • Susan

            agree with him being more prepotent than Storm Cat but not Sadler’s Wells. Sadler’s Wells was an unbelievable sire and more importantly a tremendous sire of sires

        • Larry Ensor

          Students of present day breeding should understand that in Northern Dancers day the “normal book” of mares was limited to around 45. I have a syndicated agreement for Northern Dancer somewhere around here. When he was re-syndicated in the early 70s from 25 share holders to 35. Most horses syndicated these days are around 50. If memory serves 45 was the number plus a couple of breeding rights. So IMO comparing his legacy to the “big book” area of the last 20+ years is a bit like comparing apples to oranges. IMO

          • Tinky

            Your distinction is meaningful, Larry, and it only makes ND’s legacy all the more impressive.

            For further context, Northern Dancer sired 635 foals, of which 488 started. Of those, 368 were winners, 146 were stakes winners, and 26 were champions.

            Those numbers are spectacular! 22% SW/foals, and an astounding 29% SW/starters.

            In contrast, Storm Cat sired over 1,400 foals and 12% SW, and “only” eight champions.

          • Larry Ensor

            Thanks for taking the time to put the numbers together. Puts his legacy in perspective.

            Easily one of the MOST important horses in the history of the turf.

  • ziggypop

    Watching his TC run turned me into a thoroughbred fan. I have never forgotten him. Thanks for the memory!

    • Marilyn Shively

      the Canadians love that horse: he put them on the map for horse racing and was voted athelete of the year over Gordie Howe

  • Anita Carter

    loved Northern Dancer; would like to have a granddaughter/great granddaughter of his. great horse.

  • soxbills

    Never forget him winning the derby, and being canadian myself it is hard to describe how proud of him winning. I was at Woodbine the day EP let everyone get the last look at him, before he was sent to Maryland, where he would spend the rest of his life, they handed out a Richard Stone Reeves colored print for everyone, think he had Ron Turcotte on him. Then think his first crop, Nijinsky first time winner of English triple crown in some 30 to 40 years, and none one has done it since. Back then I could read about him in Toronto Globe and Mail, when he was running and how well he was doing, and then about 3 years ago at Claiborne here I am standing on his sunken grave, pretty special memories. And just a short dist away from where the Dancer was in MD, I visited his sire’s grave (Neartic) at Woodstock Farm(Kelso). Luv the history of the sport.

    • Marlaine Meeker

      Thank you for sharing your special memories.

    • Jack Frazier

      It was the great Bill Hartack who rode Northern Dancer. A jock who hated to lose and great horse who ran like the wind. It was a great race and with Hartack and Dancer teaming up it proved to be one of the great Derby’s. He proved to be a sire of sires and they could run on anything. He was wisely bred to a limited number of great mares who then produced great race horses. His influence will be felt for a few more generations as well.

      • soxbills

        I know Bill Hartack rode him, I pretty sure Ron Turcotte was on him his last time on the racetrack when I saw him at Woodbine. In fact on canadian tv they had sports reporters that would question various sports figures, and they had Bill Hartack on one time and all they did was question they way he rode him in the Belmont when he ran 3rd. Bill was not very happy with the way they were ripping him

        • Jack Frazier

          Turcotte rode him in his first race in Canada. Horatio Luro wanted Shoemaker to commit to ride him in the TC but he chose Hill Rise instead. Hartack rode him the rest of his career. He rand third to Quadrangle and Roman Brother in the Belmont before returning to Canada in the Queens Plate.

    • JerseyGirl

      TBHR is truly rich in history. I learn more everyday. One can never know it all?

    • northerndancer

      Soxbills. I too have great memories of Northern Dancer. I was there the night he was offered for sale, with no takers. Spent some time around the little mighty might. But Woodbine did not give out Richard Stone Reeves coloured prints when he paraded under Ron Turcotte (who rode ND at two, but not in all of his races)
      They handed out prints of a Michael Burns photo. Northern Dancer actually paraded twice at Woodbine. After he retired from racing and Ron Turcotte was up, and again when he was being relocated to Maryland from National Stud.

      • soxbills

        I stand corrected on what was handed out. I know he broke his maiden at Fort Erie, my home track

      • soxbills

        He was offered for sale at Saratoga. Right!

        • northerndancer

          No. He was part of E.P. Taylor’s unique yearling sale. All of the Windfields Farm youngsters were given a price tag. Take it or leave it. No bidding. When half the yearlings were sold the sale was over and the “left overs” raced for Mr. Taylor. Several trainers were very interested in buying Northern Dancer for $25,000 but owners balked because of his size. He was a late foal. The sale took place at Mr Taylor’s farm on Bayview Avenue in Toronto.

          • soxbills

            I am sure I read he was offered for sale at the Fasif-Tipton sale at Saratoga that they have in August

    • Kathy Weightman

      I visited ND a year or so before his death in Maryland. He was out in his pasture and we were told to go ahead and walk down to see him, but to be careful, he would bite. He was beside the fence, so I walked up to him and told him my story of being a kid, and him being my first love. I told him I would love to pat his shoulder, and I would appreciate it if he would let me, LOL! I did pat him quickly, as he distainfully glared at me. But he let me, I guess he liked my story. I was thrilled to meet my childhood hero!

      • soxbills

        Your story is great. He was my biggest factor in my luv for the sport

  • soxbills

    Also, Neartic his sire. because of his son some 70% of thero’s have his blood. Pretty amazing!

  • Don Martello

    I know this story is about Northern Dancer and Winfield Farm, however I have a question was Master Willie still at the farm or did he go back to Europe before your visit?

  • Jack Frazier

    t was the great Bill Hartack who rode Northern Dancer. A jock who hated to lose and great horse who ran like the wind. It was a great race and with Hartack and Dancer teaming up it proved to be one of the great Derby’s and rider/horse combinations. He proved to be a sire of sires and they could run on anything. He was wisely bred to a limited number of great mares who then produced great race horses. His influence will be felt for a few more generations as well. His son Nureyev was dominant was well. Where would racing be without his influence?

  • JerseyGirl

    Super Stud indeed! Hail to the GREAT Northern Dancer and his amazing progeny! A horse for the ages??

  • Larry Ensor

    “Your mare is serviced and beyond that there is no guarantee”

    Though every No Guarantee (NG) service contract can be and is written a bit differently. Generally NG means no guarantee of a live foal. The contract will almost always state that the stallion will be alive and able to cover a mare. Payment is due when the mare is pronounced in foal. After that the mare owner is on their own. If the mare does not get in foal no money is owed. That was the way it was written in the one season I brokered at the time. But it does all depend on the terms of the contract.

    By and large Northern Dancer and Lyphard (son of ND) helped put the late great Marshal Jenny’s Derry Meeting Farm on the map. A beautiful farm in southern Chester County PA about 45 minutes from Windfields. A lot of the mares going to Northern Dancer were boarded and bred off of his farm. Storm Cat (by Storm Bird a son of ND) was foaled there, as was Danzig.

    As a young man walking down the isle of the broodmare barn looking at the names on the stall doors was surreal. The best of the best. Mares I had only read about or had seen on a catalog page. Pedigree that seemed more “magical”, “fictional” then real. But there they were and I put my hands on some of them. I was giddy as a school child.

    I drive by Derry Meeting often and and think of all the great mares that used to graze those paddocks. It was broken up and sold a few years ago to sport horse people. I would bet they have no idea the history that lays under their horses feet. Or the stalls they occupy.

  • Thinker

    One of the greatest of all time and my favorite. Northern Dancer, E.P.Taylor, Luro, all included in the foundation leaders in Canadian racing. There are many more but E. P. Taylor was the front runner.

  • Tracy Onslow

    My father Joe Campbell was the chief veterinarian at Winfields Farm during Northern Dancers reign. I have the signed limited edition Richard Stone Reeves print that was given to him during that time. Great memories as a kid going to the farm and seeing the great Northern Dancer and many of the other stallions that stood there.

  • northerndancer

    Larry. I disagree that Northern Dancer was thought of as a “dirt horse.” He romped in the one mile Summer Stakes, on grass, and he should have won the Cup and Saucer Stakes had he not been pinned down on the hedge with no where to run until the final 70 yards. When he sprung loose he exploded to the wire, but was nipped by a colt named Grand Garcon, who, in sports vernacular, couldn’t hold his jock strap.

    • Larry Ensor

      I Don’t entirely disagree. My comment “dirt horse” was a bit ‘tongue in cheek’.

      I would bet a lot of people forgot that Secretariat was voted Champion Grass Horse also

      • northerndancer

        Yes, and Big Red might have been better on “the green” than on dirt. What a magnificent stride on turf.

  • Sampan

    Here is some trivia for you folks interested in Northern Dancer. Did you know at one time in his stud career he went 18 months without a stakes winner. The horse that broke the ice was Jean Louis Levesque’s Laissez-Passer.

  • david stevenson

    Trainer Pete McCann deserves some applause with ND’s early preparation and success. Horatio inherited a double stakes winner when he got him.

  • At Keeneland once a fellow Newmarket trainer hoping to buy an animal which came up at the very end of the sale, and who expressed the view that, due to the lateness of the hour, he might “steal” this horse. Marshall’s response as consignor was, “you’ll be here, and I’ll be here: that will be enough!”.

    • Larry Ensor

      Yup, I have missed Marshall, his wit and sense of humor. He and others of that generation made the game fun. It is supposed to be an entertainment business by and large

  • Jocke Muth

    Found this :

    According to France Galop, since 1994, the male bloodline of every Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner goes back to Nearco, his son Nasrullah, and his grandson Northern Dancer.

    and this:

    ND is an ancestor of the winners of all three U.S. Triple Crown races in 2009: Mine That Bird in the Kentucky Derby, Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness, and Summer Bird in the Belmont. He is on both sides of the pedigrees of Mine That Bird and Rachel Alexandra. He is the great-grandsire of California Chrome, winner of the 2014 Kentucky Derby and 2014 Preakness Stakes, and also appears in the fifth generation of his pedigree. He is the great-great-grandsire of Sea the Stars. Undefeated racehorse Frankel is inbred 3 x 4 to Northern Dancer, meaning Northern Dancer appears once in the third generation and once in the fourth generation of his pedigree. American Pharoah, winner of the 2015 U.S. Triple Crown (Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes), is 5 x 5 inbred to Northern Dancer, through Storm Bird and El Gran Senor. Northern Dancer is the great-great-grandsire (all paternal) to undefeated Australian mare Black Caviar.

    wikipedia Northern Dancer

    • Savanah Gerard

      Oh Puh-lease! NEVER use Wikipedia as a reliable source! I have edited many entries myself on various topics. Including players in the NBA! They were edits simply the way I remembered an event or an idiosyncrasy. Factual information being discussed here should be from a LEGITIMATE site!

      I went to “Nature” which is EASILY the best “peer review” clinical research magazine in the world! Peer review means that every article has been reviewed by post grad PhDs in active research at top universities in the world of academia in that SPECIFIC field of study.

      Peer reviewed journals such as Nature, Science, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,or Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA), costs a university here in the US over $20,000 a year to subscribe! ONE journal per year-$20K! So you KNOW what is written is absolutely up to date correct! I have online subscriptions to these and other such journals in my computer’s database as part of my ongoing research in genomes. And they are worth it if you want facts to base one’s research. (No “alt reality” or “alternative facts” here! A year ago, you didn’t even know what that meant!)

      Now HERE’S what’s interesting! I looked up bloodlines of racehorses. I found this 2012 article in Genome Research!

      Thoroughbred Racehorses Get Speed from Just a Few Ancestors

      “Thoroughbred horses owe their amazing sprinting capabilities to just a couple of ancestors, according to a new study that traces the genetics of these racehorses.

      The research found that a genetic variant associated with speed likely originated with a SINGLE MARE IN THE MID-17TH CENTURY. (my caps) (The mare literally the mother of all racing thoroughbreds wasn’t given a proper registry name! This is interesting because in genetics ALL ancestry MUST be validated through the moms. We can NEVER be 100% certain who the father is–but it’s difficult, nearly impossible to fake the mom in a birthing paddock.)
      The gene variant (mutation) became widespread in modern thoroughbreds, THANKS TO A SINGLE STALLION NAMED NEARCTIC, THE FATHER OF THE MOST-BRED STALLION OF MODERN TIMES.(my caps)
      The genetics paper continues:

      “…the researchers examined the pedigrees of 56 elite-performing C/C and T/T horses. (These are ‘allele pairs”–like XX or XY–but are mutations of non-sex chromosomes that became known as ‘speed-C’ and ‘muscular-T’ gene variations.) They found that the genetic data converged on one horse, Nearctic, born in 1954 to a stallion named Nearco, who was known as one of the best racehorses of the era. Nearctic, in turn, sired a horse named NORTHERN DANCER, in 1961.”

      “This little gene meant big bucks for horse breeders and owners. The winnings of all of Northern Dancer’s 635 registered foals, for example, exceeded $26 million at the time of their sire’s death in 1990.” …from the archives of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. Translated into bigger purses and inflation–it would be billions of dollars from one “small” 15hh stud ND!

      So breeders and owners can talk about “slanted withers” or “rounded thoraces (chests)” or a proud “bearing” or attitude, but the billion dollar industry comes down to looking at the genomes–the real life DNA genome of a foal! LITERALLY “bloodlines.”

      Today I was able to combine my two favorite topics–superior racehorses and my field of genetic research!

      I will always remember watching the 2014 Kentucky Derby when the announcers said “All twenty starters today have the blood of Northern Dancer coursing through their veins.

      And now you know the scientific reason for why ND was so good. Great genetic alleles!

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