(NOTE FROM ABIGAIL: Before we kick off our Kentucky Derby series, I wanted to thank all of you for CLICKING: we’ve made $60.00 since the beginning of March (106 clicks) !!! It would be great if we could reach $100.00 by March 31! If you’re new to THE VAULT, we are a non-profit site that raises money for horse rescues in the USA & Canada. All you have to do is click on one or more ads on this page (side bar & bottom of this article) — no purchase necessary.
Nothing is certain on the Derby trail and Northern Dancer’s story is one filled with setbacks of all kinds. But his journey to victory in the 1964 Kentucky Derby brought hundreds of Canadians into the sport of horse racing (like me!) and made the little colt a national hero.
|Canadian Red Ensign, the unofficial flag of Canada from 1868-1965|
In 1964, the average Canadian appeared to be suffering from a collective identity crisis. The big questions, posed by everyone from Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson to author Margaret Atwood were: “What does it mean to be a Canadian?” and “What characterizes the Canadian identity?” and “How are we different from the United States?” To which the average Canadian had no answer, much to the chagrin of politicians, academics and (Canadian) writers. School curriculum nation-wide were being rewritten to counter an obvious (and embarrassing) national deficit. Courses like Canadian literature and “Oh, Canada! Towards a National Identity” were all the rage. Too, 1964 marked the year that Canada debated the issue of creating her very first national flag — before then, the Canadian flag was essentially the Canadian Ensign, complete with British Union Jack. And although the image and colours for the new flag were hotly debated in public, a good 50% of the country yawned and wondered why we needed to bother changing the flag we already had. See what I mean?
Atwood and other Canadian intellectuals also accused us of suffering from feelings of inferiority parked, as we were, just North of our giant, strident cousin. There was a lot of truth to that. According to a number of surveys, Canadians knew more about the NY Yankees, Walt Disney, the Boston Tea Party and JFK than they knew about the culture of their own country. Canadians in 1964 were absolutely convinced that anything we could do, our American cousins would do better. And we weren’t bothered by it. We more or less accepted that Americans had the best of everything, from baseball teams to national figures to cotton to shoes. (I came from a family that lived about 30 minutes from the New York border — an unrepentant gang of smugglers. In particular, my grandmother would simply not hear of anything except American cotton and American footwear…..which were happily smuggled through the border under the front seat of various cars — and before that, were buried in feed bags in the family buggy!)
All by way of saying that when diminutive Northern Dancer stepped onto the track at Churchill Downs on May 2, 1964, we were there to watch him ……. lose. It was inconceivable to think that this tiny thoroughbred with the seriously cracked and doctored hoof could beat the giant American champion, Hill Rise. (Part of that “anything-you-can-do” sensibility.) But we were still in the Dancer’s cheering section, to be sure, proud that a Canadian colt had qualified to even run in the Derby.
My grandfather would be dead by August of that year, but frail as he was, he insisted on watching the Kentucky Derby with his family. We got him out of his bed, helped him to his favourite chair and wrapped him in a blanket. Then we all took our seats in front of the old black and white television……
Northern Dancer (1961) was the product of E. P. Taylor’s breeding program, first at the original National Stud in Toronto and later at the first of two Windfields Farms, in Oshawa, Ontario. “Eddie” Taylor, as he was known to his friends, was a Canadian business tycoon whose love of thoroughbreds so surpassed his obvious business acumen that a few short months before his death, Taylor confessed that his greatest thrills had come from breeding champions like Northern Dancer. Taylor made pivotal contributions to Canadian thoroughbred horse racing during his lifetime, from the founding of Windfields to installing starting gates at Woodbine to lobbying for racing regulations to protect all thoroughbreds from mistreatment and harm. He was, undoubtedly, the godfather of the sport and his thoroughbred breeding operation — with lots of help from Northern Dancer — brought Canada international status.
Northern Dancer’s sire, Nearctic (1954), was a son of Nearco (1935) and Lady Angela (1944), she a daughter of Hyperion (1930) that Taylor had purchased overseas. Part of Taylor’s method was to introduce strong British bloodlines into Canadian thoroughbred breeding in an effort to improve the breed. In this respect, he followed in the footsteps of great American racing dynasties such as the Whitneys, the Belmonts and the Alexanders.
But when Lady Angela arrived by boat from England, in foal and with another foal at her side, she was in terrible distress. Taylor’s trusted stallion manager, Henry Green, had been sent to the port of Montreal to receive the precious cargo but when he looked down into the hold, what he saw was a mare bathed in sweat, slipping dangerously on the hard metal floor, her foal huddled close to her side. The ship’s crew had been trying without success to drive mother and baby into the crate that would carry them to surface, but the mare was terrified and was having none of it. Green went down into the stall to settle Lady Angela. Then, knowing that the mare would do anything to keep her foal close, he led the little fellow into the shipping crate first, holding him close as they were hoisted out of the hold. Once the foal had been bedded down in the horse van that would take him to his new home, Green went back for the mare. Happily, she followed him into the crate without incident, calling to her foal as she stepped out onto dry land. It was very fortuitous that Henry Green was there that day, otherwise Lady Angela might well have miscarried the foal she was carrying — and that foal was Nearctic.
|Family tree: (clockwise from top) Lady Angela, Natalma and Nearctic|
|Nearctic grew to be an outstanding individual of 16 hands with a brown coat so dark that it looked black. As a two year-old he was described by his first trainer, Pete McCann, as having a “mean streak.” Nearctic’s bad temper showed itself in the form of overt aggression toward other horses and people, including the joy he seemed to derive from dislodging his exercise riders and jockeys. His dark temperament was also an issue because Nearctic possessed great running ability — ability that might never shine unless his temperament could be harnessed. McCann was the kind of trainer who rode many of his young charges himself and he took Nearctic under his wing. After working with him long and hard, McCann finally had a colt who had learned enough basic etiquette and track smarts to start racing. Nearctic was sent off to Saratoga and stabled with trainer Charley Shaw. He won the Saratoga Special, came in fourth in the Hopeful and then was sent back to Canada a nervous and agitated colt. It seemed clear that without Pete McCann around, Nearctic had reverted back to his old ways. Returned to the familiar routine of McCann’s stable, Nearctic came back to win the Carleton Stakes before showing signs of a quarter track in his left front hoof. In those days, there was little to do with this kind of injury other than resting a thoroughbred until it healed. Nearctic ended his first racing season having won 4 stakes races and 3 others, a good enough record to see him crowned champion Canadian 2 year-old colt.|
|Nearctic winning at Fort Erie|
At three, the hope was to run him in the Kentucky Derby, but it never happened. Nearctic had been sent to California to the great Horatio Luro for his 3 year-old campaign. The colt’s reputation for nastiness — deserved or not — was legion. He was a powerfully built horse and none of the American jocks wanted anything to do with him. It took Luro some time, but he finally found a jockey who could not be intimidated: Rae Johnstone, an accomplished international figure who hailed from Australia but who had built his career in California and Europe. Under Luro’s guidance, Johnstone began a training regimen with Nearctic suited to the colt’s distinctive temperament — he rode him over the area surrounding Santa Anita in a normal saddle with traditional stirrups, at an almost casual pace. Sometimes they would just come to a halt for a lengthly period of time so that Nearctic could look around. Johnstone rode the fiery colt with calm, gentle hands and great confidence. Gradually, the 3 year-old began to respond. However, when Johnstone departed for the British racing season and Nearctic was put back into a regular training program, the Achilles’ heel of his left front hoof reared its ugly head again and his lameness made the Kentucky Derby impossible. He went on to race that year, but won only 4 of 13 starts.
Nearctic really came into his own at 4, winning his first 5 starts. Then, after a disappointing showing in the Dominion Day Handicap and the Connaught Mile, he took the Michigan Mile with authority against some very good colts, among them Swoon’s Son (1953) and Red God (1954). After winning one race at Woodbine in his fifth year, Nearctic again came up lame and was finally retired. Although he was a very difficult stallion to manage and handle even in retirement, he was potent and very successful. Icecapade (1969) and Briarctic (1968), together with Northern Dancer were his three most famous offspring, but Nearctic also sired many other sound and successful individuals. He was inducted into the Canadian Racing Hall of Fame in 1977.
|Nearctic as a sire|
Northern Dancer’s dam, Natalma (1957), was a daughter of the legendary Native Dancer (1950). A $35,000 yearling purchase at Saratoga in 1958, Natalma also boasted a powerful tail female. She was the third foal of foundation mare Almahmoud (1947), by Mahmoud (1933) and her granddam was Harry Payne Whitney’s homebred, Mother Goose (1922) — the American taproot mare who had astonished racing fans when she swept to victory in the Belmont Futurity Stakes against 27 other colts and fillies in 1924.
Also trained by Horatio Luro, Natalma raced only briefly for Taylor. Despite corrective surgery, the filly was plagued repeatedly by a weak right knee. Muriel Lennox, Northern Dancer’s official biographer, tells how Natalma won her first two starts in 1959 at Belmont but in the Spinaway, under jockey Bobby Ussery, she was whipped hard enough to lug in on another horse and was disqualified.
After that, Natalma decided that if racing was about hitting, she wasn’t going to run. She had, according to Lennox, “gone on strike,” refusing to go anywhere near the Belmont track. Luro’s response was to give her a mild tranquilizer before taking her, under saddle, for a tour of the Belmont stable area. They visited friends, met other horses and stood around watching all the activity. Finally, the filly’s trust and confidence returned. Sadly, a significant calcium deposit was found on her right knee after a prep for the Kentucky Oaks and she was retired shortly thereafter. Natalma was ready to breed by June, but June is late in the breeding season, a problem when all thoroughbreds have birthdays on January 1st. Still, her connections decided to forebear and Natalma was covered by Nearctic later that month: the issue of their mating was Northern Dancer.
|Natalma during her racing days|
|Natalma, shown here on the inside (white blaze), makes all the running in the Spinaway,
only to be disqualified.
Natalma’s little prince came into the world on May 27, 1961. The newborn had a brown coat, dark mane and tail, a crooked blaze running down his face and three white feet. Offered to buyers at the annual Windfields yearling sale of 1962, he failed to garner a single bid despite his regal bloodlines. The reason? He was very small for a yearling — just slightly more than 14 hands — and his peers towered over him. He had pranced down the equine runway in a brand new halter, coat gleaming and hooves polished — while trying his very best to take a chunk out of his handler. Even as a youngster, Northern Dancer gave every sign that the spirit of several tempestuous, albeit brilliant, ancestors coursed through his blood. One client who gave him a second look the day of the sale confided that he was glad that he hadn’t bought the colt: based on the Dancer’s behaviour, he would have had him gelded!
|Northern Dancer as a foal. (Courtesy of The Jockey Club)|
In the end, the little fellow was vanned off to the Windfields training facility along with the other yearlings who had not been sold that day. He quickly earned himself a dubious reputation. He wasn’t nasty, he just didn’t want to take instruction, however kindly it was offered. He bucked, kicked and bit riders, stable hands and other colts. He was without question the leader of the pack — and that extended to everyone who worked with him. The first time he was taken out to the track, he fought his rider the whole way; when the young man took up the reins and nudged him forward, the colt paused for a split second before all four feet left the ground in a whirling frenzy worthy of a rodeo. Having tossed his rider, the Dancer took off on his own for a canter around the track. He was, as the saying goes, “lightning in a bottle” — as agile as a cat and as unpredictable as a wild thing.
In his first start at 2, the Dancer was ridden by Ron Turcotte. By now, the little bay’s idiosyncracies were legion and trainer, Horatio Luro — “El Gran Senor” — made it clear that Turcotte was not to go to the whip, no matter what happened. A few months earlier, in a trial race against two other Taylor colts, the rider had used his whip on Northern Dancer and the colt had responded by finishing the course in one second under the track record. But since then, the Dancer had had trouble with one of his heels and Luro wanted no heroics in his maiden start.
|Northern Dancer & Ron Turcotte|
At the start, the Dancer leapt out of the gate, keen to take on the world. As Turcotte tells the story, in the home stretch the colt drew alongside the leader but seemed content to just go with him. Hiding his whip in his left hand so that Luro couldn’t see it, Turcotte simply touched the Dancer’s shoulder. Boom! He was off, crossing the finish line 8 lengths ahead of the nearest horse. To this day, Turcotte believes that had he brushed the colt when the field turned for home, the son of Nearctic would have won by 15-20 lengths instead of 8. As far as Turcotte is concerned, after Secretariat comes Northern Dancer — they were the two greatest thoroughbreds he ever rode.
The irony of Northern Dancer’s 2 year-old campaign was that even though he was the youngest of the Windfields’ contingent, he was also it’s only hope in the 1963 racing season. For one reason or another, all of the other Taylor hopefuls had dropped out of sight.
Happily, the little Dancer came a’ running to win the Carleton, Summer, Remsen and Cup & Saucer Stakes, as well as taking the Coronation Futurity. He had won a total of seven races in two months, but after the Carleton Stakes his groom noticed blood on the ground as he was bathing him. Northern Dancer was bleeding from the coronet of his left foreleg, the beginning of a quarter crack — the same career-ending injury (on the same foot) that had plagued his sire, Nearctic, years earlier.
|El Gran Senor, Horatio Luro and the Dancer|
Despite what was to prove a dark harbinger of the future, the Dancer ran against Bupers (1961) ten days later in the Sir Gaylord Purse at Aqueduct, both 2 year-olds carrying a top weight of 124 lbs. and won it by 8 lengths going away. But the quarter crack in the left front hoof was deepening and to give the foreleg better support and stability before the Remsen, a bar shoe was constructed. Despite the special shoe, the quarter crack had further deteriorated following his win. Even though the Windfields team was happy to rest on its laurels as the Dancer’s first season drew to a close, they knew that the 1964 Kentucky Derby was unlikely, given the state of his hoof. And this was a tragedy: both Luro and Taylor realized that Natalma’s son had the mettle of a true champion, maybe one of the best to ever come out of Windfields.
At this point, it’s important to stress that Northern Dancer ran most of his races at 2 and 3 handicapped by his troublesome foreleg. He was often sore, sometimes really hurting, as was the case in his final race, The Queen’s Plate. It was Bill Hartack who rode the champ that day and as the Dancer languished at the back of the field, Luro and the Taylor family watched in disbelief. The Queen’s Plate is Canada’s most historic horse race and Canadians feel the same magic for it as they do for the fabled Kentucky Derby. By now, the little horse with the huge heart had become a Canadian legend. The thought of him losing the Queen’s Plate was unthinkable. When Hartack finally gave the 3 year-old the green light and Northern Dancer streaked from last to first in a heartbeat, there was a collective sigh of relief. But after the race, the colt came up lame, effectively ending his career. Northern Dancer had run 4 classic races in 6 weeks before his start in The Queen’s Plate. And he had won the Queen’s Plate on sheer guts — because he ran home pretty much on three legs.
(Luro and Taylor were of the opinion that Hartack had held the horse back — as he had done in the Belmont Stakes earlier — in a deliberate attempt to put on a real show for the legions who had come to Woodbine to see their hero. And although Ron Turcotte has gone on record to say, “…Bill Hartack would never do that. In the Queen’s Plate and the Belmont, the horse was hurting and Hartack was just trying to save him up for the finish…” Taylor was so furious with Hartack that it was Ron Turcotte he chose to ride Northern Dancer at his last public appearance before his retirement.)
Other than sheer guts, there was one other thing that kept the tough little bay running: he was a true “alpha” and by the end of his 2 year-old campaign he had made it clear: no-one was going to head him if he could help it. Northern Dancer apparently loved to come up on the leader, look him right in the eye and then steam away to the finish. Given his diminutive size, his competitive spirit endeared him to his fans even more than his victories.
Late in 1963, shortly before the Dancer travelled to Florida for the winter and a well-deserved rest, his trainer caught wind of an experimental procedure that had been used on the trotter, Adios Jr., who had also sustained a quarter crack. It was called a “vulcanized patch” and would only work if the quarter crack was in a certain position. Made of a rubberized material that was then vulcanized with an acetylene torch, once the patch had hardened, it would grow out in tandem with the hoof. Luro contacted the inventor of the patch, blacksmith Bill Bane, who confirmed that Northern Dancer was a good candidate for the procedure.
Luro and Taylor were hopeful, but the real issue would be whether or not their volatile colt would cooperate. Horses are actually one large, “integrated sound system,” from their ears to the soles of their feet. This is how they learn their world. A horse’s feet sense the slightest tremors in the earth and, being fight-or- flight creatures, this information is relayed in a nano-second to the brain through the blood, nerves and bones. Hooves are central to equine reality and interfering with them can cause distress in the calmest Clydesdale, let alone in a thoroughbred as hyper as Northern Dancer. The fear was that the colt would either resist from the outset, or else devise a way afterwards to relieve himself of the patch.
As it turned out, the Dancer shocked everyone by munching away on carrots as the patch was applied, just as though it was another ordinary day. He was then to be walked for about a week before resuming training. Arriving in Florida, the colt was turned out in a tiny paddock — one where he couldn’t charge around like a maniac — to ensure that the patch had optimum conditions to harden. Late in January 1964, the 3 year-old began taking long, leisurely gallops. Now that he was pain-free, it became apparent to everyone just how much the little Dancer had endured through much of his 2 year-old season. His stride was more powerful, his confidence peaking and he almost seemed to relish his daily works. You still couldn’t turn your back on him and he still disdained anyone who pushed him too aggressively. But he had matured and was becoming more professional. And he felt good.
|There was one person that Northern Dancer adored: Mrs. Winifred Taylor.
E.P. Taylor’s wife was the Dancer’s greatest fan. He was always on his very
best behaviour when she came to visit.
Luro decided to give his “big horse” a prep race before the Florida Derby by running him in the Flamingo Stakes. Given the time he had needed to heal from the patch, Luro thought it best to run the colt in a pre-Flamingo prep race. Northern Dancer went off as second choice to another good colt, Chieftain. Luro had wanted to get Bill Shoemaker, but as he was unavailable, so he settled for Bob Ussery instead. Before the race, the trainer made it clear to Ussery that he was to take it easy on the colt and under no circumstances was he to go to his whip. Northern Dancer started off well enough when he was bumped and knocked off stride. Persevering, the colt moved up along the rail until he hit a wall of horseflesh. In the closing moments of the Flamingo, Ussery slashed the colt with his whip several times, but all for naught. Northern Dancer had been the victim of a bad trip and the best he could do was to finish third. An enraged Luro publicly denounced Ussery. Remember: Ussery was the same jockey who had whipped Natalma in the Spinaway at Saratoga, causing her to swerve in and, ultimately, to be disqualified.
Just as his dam had done after being flailed by Ussery, Northern Dancer refused to enter the track the next day. But whereas Natalma had simply — almost politely — refused, her son became enraged, bucking and lashing out with his hind legs. So Horatio Luro started all over again, just as he’d done with Natalma: under the influence of tranquilizers, Northern Dancer was inched closer and closer to the track, one day at a time. And, like it had for his dam, patience and something to calm the colt’s anxiety worked like a charm. As he was rehabilitating his colt, Luro also secured the services of the great Bill Shoemaker for both the Flamingo and the Florida Derby. The Shoe’s quiet hands were just what the little guy with the big heart needed now.
Northern Dancer didn’t disappoint. With The Shoe sitting quiet in the saddle, the colt took both the Flamingo and the Florida Derby. In the former, the Dancer scorched to a time just slightly off the track record set by Bold Ruler (1954), beating Mr. Brick(1961) and Quadrangle (1961) — who finished 10th — in the process. In the Florida Derby, the Dancer won by a length, although the win was a miracle in and of itself. The day before the race, with a new exercise rider up (always unwise with Northern Dancer) the 3 year-old took the bit in his mouth and ran the 5 furlongs in :58.6 seconds. So when the starting gates opened for the Florida Derby, Luro and company were holding their collective breath. But the colt came home first, even though he had been run hard over 2 consecutive days. Neither Luro nor Taylor were in any doubt: Northern Dancer was on his way to the Derby.
|Dancer finds his Shoe: in the winner’s circle after the Florida Derby,
the great Bill Shoemaker up
Even though The Shoe knew what kind of a runner the Canadian colt could be, he chose to ride the promising Hill Rise (1961) in the Kentucky Derby instead, much to the disappointment of the Dancer’s team. As the Florida Derby win had been accomplished in moderate fractions, the press saw Shoemaker’s decision as further evidence that Northern Dancer was not up to winning the Derby. Hill Rise was a magnificent animal, who had started his career late compared to Luro’s colt; however, the big, handsome Californian was coming into the Derby off an unbeaten streak that included the Santa Anita Derby. He would be a formidable opponent for a 15 h. thoroughbred who had a fiery temper and a sometimes bum foreleg.
Bill Hartack was engaged to ride Northern Dancer instead and the colt started as second choice to Hill Rise. The duo got in a pre-Derby prep in the Bluegrass Stakes, which the colt won by a length without urging. It did nothing to silence his critics: they felt that Northern Dancer did not have the makings of a classic thoroughbred.
… When Northern Dancer appeared on the track in the Derby post parade, my grandfather rocked a little in his chair and muttered, “He’s so small….your mother’s Hackney pony was about the same size…” We all nodded in silent agreement. It would be a miracle if the blinkered bay won — firstly, he was a munchkin …… and secondly, he was Canadian.
Here’s what happened:
” The little Dancer is over a winner. Canada can be proud…” My entire family erupted into screams of shock and delight. My grandfather was crying silently and leaning forward in his chair. “Well I never,” was all he could manage to say.
Northern Dancer’s victory was not only a track record but a historic Canadian moment and one that would see the 3 year-old entered into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame — the only non-human to be so honoured to this day. Eddie Taylor’s little horse — the colt nobody wanted with the sore foot and complex temperament — was the first Canadian owned and bred thoroughbred to ever win the Kentucky Derby.
|Northern Dancer and Hill Rise race to the wire|
|Eddie Taylor leads in his champion|
The win made Northern Dancer a Canadian hero. As Eddie Taylor led his royally-bred champion into the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs, Canadians across the land whooped and hollered, clapped and shouted.
We had found our inspiration. Now we knew what made Canada different from our beloved American cousins: Northern Dancer.
|Canadian flag, adopted in 1965|