Northern Dancer, The Grand Daddy Of ‘Em All
Winner of the 1964 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, Northern Dancer’s achievements on the racetrack were just a footnote next to his accomplishments in the breeding shed.
After retiring from competition, this stocky bay-colored stallion who couldn’t sell as a yearling spawned the most successful racing dynasty of the 20th century.
It was mostly his grandsons and their descendants who galloped away with the racing trophies. Among the many prominent winners were Ferdinand (1986 Kentucky Derby), Pine Bluff (1992 Preakness) and Danzig Connection (1986 Belmont). By the turn of the millennium, Northern Dancer’s line of champions touched every continent.
His pedigree first drew wide attention following a set of victories in Great Britain by his son Nijinsky II, who won the English Triple Crown in 1970. He was the first horse to do so in 35 years.
The patriarch stud was foaled north of the border in 1961 on Windfields Farm in Ontario, Canada. His sire, Nearctic, and dam, Natalma, had roots on both sides of the Atlantic.
Short-legged but muscular across the chest, Northern Dancer was not cast from the typical thoroughbred mold. But his tough, feisty demeanor won races and later on, the ladies.
At the Kentucky Derby, Northern Dancer broke the 89-year old track record and became the first Canadian-born and bred horse to win the Run for the Roses. He ran the track in a flat 2:00 minutes, which still remains the third fastest behind Monarchos (1:59:97 in 2001) and Secretariat (1:59:24 in 1973).
Following that historic finish, Northern Dancer became Canada’s national hero, with the mayor of Toronto awarding him the key to the city in the form of a carrot, and sportswriters voting him Athlete of The Year.
Two weeks later, the celebrated colt swept the Preakness Stakes but then placed third at Belmont to fall short of winning the Triple Crown.
In 1965, the four-legged champ became the first non-human to be inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame.
At the end of his running career, he ended up winning 14 of 18 starts and never finished out of the money. He strutted off with $581k in total prize earnings, but the best was yet to come.
With amorous instincts always on hyper-alert, Northern Dancer had to be moved to the back of the barn, since each time a van approached with a mare he would rear up, squeal in excitement and cause commotion.
Because of his low stature, the Napoleon of horses also had to be led up a ramp placed behind the ladies to perform his mating ritual.
The young stallion first stood in 1965 for a fee of $10,000. In his first crops, he fathered 16 winners (10 stakes) from 18 starters. By the late 1980’s, Northern Dancer produced a then-record 146 stakes winners and 49 yearlings that sold for over $1 million or more.
Published stud fees ballooned to $500,000 and some private arrangements reached $1 million. In contrast, 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, who actually traces both his parents to Northern Dancer, commands stud fees of $200,000.
Investors even tendered $40 million for the horse prodigy when he was 20 years old, but the offer was declined. Bidding duels among well-to-do racers and breeders became legendary and in 1984, fourteen of Northern Dancer’s yearlings averaged an astounding $3 million at auction.
By the time the grand old horse pensioned in 1987, he accumulated lifetime stud fees amounting to $118 million.
The sire of sires was euthanized in 1990, but not before accomplishing everything a horse, or even a human, could want: money, love, and generations of successful off-springs.
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