Northern Dancer’s effect on racing is legendary
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – He was almost tiny, like a section of chocolate from a tempting Hershey Bar. A rich brown in color and diminutive, Northern Dancer set the moneyed-world of thoroughbred racing on its ear from 1963 until his death in 1990.
Even though he won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 1964, it was as a sire that the little Canadian grabbed a spotlight so large that his stud fee rose steadily to $1 million per mating.
He wasn’t quite pony-size, but he was always smaller than any thoroughbred he ever raced against. But it wasn’t the size of his withers or length of his legs that moved him more than a few places ahead of his competition. It was the size of his racing heart and competitive spirit.
Pint-sized and already known for a cantankerous attitude toward humans, Northern Dancer was offered at auction for $25,000. There were no takers. He would be raced by his breeder.
Even without the dreamy physical allure of $1 million yearlings or two year olds in training, he did have agility and the bouncy grace and balance of ballroom dancers.
Even years before his death, Northern Dancer was called “the leading male-line progenitor of modern thoroughbreds worldwide.”
Being born and raised in Canada made him a relative unknown when he began racing in America as a two-year-old.
Wintered in Florida after his two-year-old campaign, he opened his preparations for the 1964 Triple Crown series in the Sunshine State.
Wins in the Flamingo and Florida Derby had the inside world of racing casting ambitious eyes at him. When he posted a solid first in the Blue Grass Stakes, he became the public favorite to win the Kentucky Derby.
He did not disappoint. And then he was already an icon when he went to Baltimore and defeated another field in the Preakness Stakes.
Citation had been the last Triple Crown champion and that was in 1948.
Citation was still the last Triple Crown winner after Northern Dancer finished a lackluster third in the Belmont Stakes.
Entered into stud in 1965, the temperamental mite stood in Canada at Winfields Farm. When his first crop of sons and daughters hit North American tracks running with immediate success in 1968, he was moved to Winfields operation in Maryland a year later.
Not only were his sons and daughters winning scads of races, Northern Dancer’s bloodlines included Native Dancerm – who lost only only one time in his fabled career – as well as European champions Nearco and Natalma.
His initial stud fee was $10,000. But as he became not only the leading sire in America but also Great Britain and Ireland, his rates increased in steady increments through the years.
By 1980, it cost $100,000 to use his services. The next year it was $150,000, then $250,000, then $300,000 and all the way to $500,000 in 1984.
After 1984, his owners auctioned off his breeding services and were getting $1 million per mating as a routine dollar figure.
His sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters were either siring or bearing champions seemingly all over the racing map.
And he was ripening to 28 years of age.
Race commentators and the media made more of champions that had no Northern Dancer blood coursing through their veins than they did of the dozens upon dozens that did have his genes.
His imprint was more than indelible – it was ever-lasting.
Northern Dancer: small in stature, gigantic in impact on worldwide racing.
Better than Hershey Bar itself. And that’s saying plenty.