Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 55 Days to Go!

Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 55 Days to Go!

Northern Dancer, the little horse that could, took the 90th running of the Kentucky Derby in record time, shaving 2/5 of a second off of Decidedly’s record and running the mile and a quarter in two minutes flat. He would become the first Canadian-bred to win the race, which would gain him honors into the Canadian Hall of Fame.

Northern Dancer was not necessarily a planned breeding. His dam, Natalma, was a Native Dancer mare that E.P. Taylor purchased for $35,000 at the Saratoga yearling sale. A promising filly, she was good at two, then won her first start at three and was prepping for the Kentucky Oaks when she received a slight knee fracture. Sent to the farm to recover from bone chips, Taylor decided she was too valuable to send back to the track, so he bred her to his stallion Nearctic to help fill out his book.

Taylor, the owner of Canada’s Windfields Farm, wanted to create an international breeding operation. To do so, he started purchasing outside bloodstock, mostly from Europe. He bought the mare *Lady Angela while she was in foal to the good stallion Nearco. In purchasing the mare, Taylor worked in the stipulation that she be bred back to Nearco, leaving her at the farm to have her foal and for the breeding. The second breeding resulted in Nearctic, who was named for the region that included the Arctic and temperate areas of North America. Nearctic was a compact but good race horse who won 21 of his 47 starts, becoming Canada’s Horse of the Year when he was four, then retired to Windfields to stud in 1960.

As a result of Natalma’s breeding being the final breeding of the year, Northern Dancer was a late foal, arriving on May 27, 1961. Due to his late birth date, Northern Dancer became the youngest horse to win the Kentucky Derby, as he was 25 days away from his official 3rd birthday. He still wasn’t quite three when he won the Preakness, and his first race as a true 3YO resulted in a 3rd place in the Belmont.

The small bay colt with the good bloodlines was put up for sale at the Windfields Farm yearling sale, where he had a $25,000 price tag. Finding no takers, Taylor decided to keep the colt, sending him to the Senor Horatio Luro to receive his conditioning and groundwork. In what would have been a catastrophic decision, someone, possibly Luro, suggested to Taylor to geld the colt. Thankfully, he wasn’t. Starting his career in Canada, Northern Dancer would finish his 2YO season with seven wins from nine starts. His first race and victory in Canada, Northern Dancer was ridden by apprentice jockey, Ron Turcotte, in a 5 ½ furlong race at Fort Erie that they would win by 6 ¾ lengths in 1:06 1/5 . He would win the Coronation Futurity, Canada’s richest 2YO race, the Summer Stakes, as well as the Carleton Stakes before shipping to Aqueduct where he won the Belmont Futurity by eight lengths, covering the mile in 1:36. A week prior to running in the Remsen Stakes, Northern Dancer would develop a quarter crack in his left front hoof. A California blacksmith named W.R. “Bill” Bane would apply one of his famous “Bane Patches” to the hoof, which was a vulcanized synthetic process. Once it was applied, Northern Dancer had no more problems, getting immediate results. He would wrap up his season in the Remsen, a race in which the popular bay would give seven to thirteen pounds to his five competitors, going on to lead the majority of the race and win by two lengths in 1:35 3/5 for the mile contest. He would earn Canada’s 2YO Championship.

At three, the Champion would prepare for his campaign in Florida, developing into a muscular colt, although he still stayed small like his sire. On February 10th he would make his first start at Hialeah in a 6-furlong allowance, finishing two lengths behind Chieftain and Mom’s Request. Two weeks later in a 7-furlong race he would turn the tables, beating Chieftain by seven lengths in 1:23 2/5. On March 3rd, Northern Dancer would stamp himself as one of the Derby favorites while scoring a two-length victory in the Flamingo Stakes, cruising across the line in the outstanding time of 1:47 4/5. A few weeks later he would equal the track record in a 7-furlong allowance, a four length conquest.

The morning of the Florida Derby, Luro would work his charge over 5-furlongs, which led to a visually unimpressive one length victory over The Scoundrel. Two days after the victory, Bill Shoemaker, who had piloted the colt since the Flamingo, decided to choose Santa Anita Derby winner, Hill Rise, as his Derby mount. Luro, who had teamed with Bill Hartack two years earlier to win the Derby with Decidedly, offered Hartack the mount upon Northern Dancer. Accepting the offer, Hartack would be aboard for the Blue Grass Stakes. The new tandem would give weight to the other four challengers, yet still managed to win by a half-length under no pressure. Hartack would gallop his mount out the Derby distance in 2:03.  Hartack would be Northern Dancer’s rider for the rest of his career, though he tried to give up the mount prior to the running of the Derby to ride Quadrangle. His agent wouldn’t let him out of the agreement, leading to Hartack’s fourth Derby victory.

Northern Dancer was made the second choice for the Derby behind Hill Rise in the twelve horse field. As the horses broke away from the gate, Mr. Brick would make his way to the front, setting a good pace. Northern Dancer and Hartack raced mid-pack for the majority of the race, coming off the rail to take the lead at the head of the stretch. Hill Rise and Shoemaker followed the duo, moving when they did, and chased them down the stretch. Trying to close the gap throughout the final quarter mile, they couldn’t make up ground on the gritty Northern Dancer, who responded to Hartack’s driving. They would run the final quarter in :24 after a 1:36 first mile, seizing the victory by a neck, setting a new race and track record when they passed the finish line in 2:00; a record that would stand until Secretariat would lower it to 1:59 2/5 in 1973.

Even though they had won the race, the public still believed that Hill Rise would take the Preakness two weeks later, again making the Dancer the second choice. This time however, the team would win by an even larger distance after following Quadrangle’s early pace into the final turn. There they took over, winning the race by 2 ¼ lengths over The Scoundrel, with Hill Rise a neck back in third.

In the Belmont, which was held at Aqueduct due to renovations, Quadrangle was able to get to the front and set a leisurely pace. Northern Dancer was rated nicely, although he was unable to close into the lead. Making a run at the leader with an eighth to go, the bay would tire and fall back, coming in third behind Quadrangle and Roman Brother. After his Triple Crown run, Northern Dancer would return on June 20th, making his next start in Canada’s Queens Plate. Showing that he wasn’t just lucky in his Derby win, he proved that he could easily cover the mile and a quarter distance, winning in 2:02 1/5, only 2/5 off of the track record. With his victory, Northern Dancer would become the only horse to win both the Kentucky Derby and Queen’s Plate.

In prepping for a start in the Travers, he would bow a tendon during a workout. Unable to race again, the Derby victor was retired to his Canadian home. Northern Dancer was named America’s 3YO Champion Male and Canada’s 3YO Champion Male, Canada’s Horse of the Year and Athlete of the Year. He was inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame and Canadian Racing Hall of Fame in 1976. As a stallion, Northern Dancer would become a very successful sire, starting out with a fee of $10,000 that would eventually reach a fee as high as $1 Million. He produced runners that would produce, making him extremely sought after as a sire, as were his offspring. He would sire winners of the Epsom and Irish Derbys, the 2000 Guineas, the St. Leger, as well as an English Triple Crown winner. Many of his offspring became Champions in England and Canada. His offspring would produce winners of the American Triple Crown races. Northern Dancer is also responsible for more Breeders Cup winning descendants than any other horse. He would top the sires list numerous times. Two of his best known sons were Nijinsky II, one of the best horses in Europe who retired to Claiborne, and Storm Bird, the sire of Storm Cat. He stood both in Canada and Maryland, passing away at the age of 29 due to colic. His remains were returned to Canada to be buried at his birthplace.

(Peter Max Painting courtesy of the Kentucky Derby Museum archives)

Rickelle  Nelson

Rickelle Nelson

Reservations Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum