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.
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