There have not been that many champion race horses that were bred in Canada. Northern Dancer is perhaps the most famous of them all. In a career that included success both on the race track and in the breeding shed, Northern Dancer managed to carve out an impressive place in Canadian horse racing history. The horse was enshrined into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 1965.
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Beginnings of a Canadian Horse Racing Champion
Northern Dancer was foaled in 1961 in Canada. The bay stallion had an impressive pedigree which included horse racing champions Nearctic and Native Dancer. He was bred by Edward P. Taylor, the owner of Windfields Farm. Taylor intended to sell the horse at a yearling auction, but he was very disappointed when the reserve price of $25,000 was not met. Taylor opted to keep the horse for his own stable.
The appearance of Northern Dancer was likely the result that the horse did not draw interest at the yearling sale. He was smaller than other yearlings and not physically impressive. What the horse lacked in size he made up for in agility and balance. He was barely 15 hands tall by the time he reached racing age.
There was also the matter of a difficult temperament. Northen Dancer did not seem vindictive or mean toward his handlers but was prone to wheel and kick. This prompted his trainer to suggest that the colt should be gelded, but owner Taylor refused this request.
In 1963 Northern Dancer made his racing debut as a two-year-old at Fort Erie Race Track. He was ridden by the jockey that would eventually ride Secretariat, Ron Turcotte. The jockey was given specific instructions not to hit Northern Dancer with a whip. He did not and the horse won the race by a large margin. A poor finish after a speed duel would follow in the Vandal Stakes just two weeks later.
Northern Dancer at Age Three
Northern Dancer finished his two-year-old season with an impressive seven victories in nine starts. The horse was named the Canadian Juvenile Champion. All roads were pointing to America and a run at the respected Triple Crown. By this time jockey Bill Shoemaker had taken over the riding duties of the horse. Shoemaker guided Northern Dancer to a win in the Florida Derby as a prep race for the Kentucky Derby and the first leg of the Triple Crown.
Before the Kentucky Derby Bill Shoemaker was asked to commit to riding Northern Dancer in the big race. To the surprise of the trainer and everyone else involved, Shoemaker declined. He chose to ride a horse that he had never rode before instead. The fallout from this became history as Bill Hartack took over the riding duties for the rest of Northern Dancer’s career. Hartack began by winning the Blue Grass Stakes just a few weeks before the Kentucky Derby.
At the Kentucky Derby Northern Dancer was unruly during the post parade, bucking and cutting up. By the time the horses had reached the starting gate Northern Dancer had calmed down somewhat and broke well from the gate. He established a good position in the early going, made a move with a quarter mile to go, and bested the horse ridden by Bill Shoemaker to win the race in 2 minutes flat. This was a track record that would stand until Secretariat broke it in 1973. Northern Dancer became the first Canadian bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby.
Northern Dancer would go on to win the Preakness Stakes before finishing third in the Belmont to narrowly miss the Triple Crown.
The Return to Canada
After his efforts in the Triple Crown series, Northern Dancer was welcomed back to Canada and honored by the mayor of Toronto. June 8, 1964 was declared as Northern Dancer Day in the province. A scheduled parade involving the horse had to be scrapped because of his temperament. A key to the city made from a carrot was given to Northern Dancer’s owner. A few days later the horse ate it.
Northern Dancer would go on to win the Queen’s Plate in Canada, making him the first horse to win both the Queen’s Plate and the Kentucky Derby. A short time later he was injured while training at Belmont Park. When his injury did not respond to treatment, Northern Dancer was retired from competition.
He only raced for two years and only competed in 18 races. He won 14 of them. This is is just one reason why Northern Dancer is recognized as the greatest thoroughbred champion from Canada. He was also a great sire who produced many other champions.
Northern Dancer at Stud
Taylor decide to stand Northern Dancer at his own Windsfield Farm in Ontario. The initial fee for the horse was a modest $10,000. This would be considered very low for a horse of this caliber today. The horse was so small that a ramp had to be built in the breeding shed which would allow him to service the mares.
In 1968 the very first horses that were sired by Northern dancer began to make their racing debuts. Almost all of them showed a vast amount of talent. Northern Dancer would go on to become the leading sire in North America in 1971 and also in 1977.
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