Northern Dancer: a virile stable genius
An astonishing 97% of Thoroughbreds descend from legend Northern Dancer:
Special to the Toronto Star: February 2020
By Muriel Lennox, author, award-winning journalist,
worked at the Windfields estate of owner E.P. Taylor,
examines the pride and the passion.
After testing the genetic makeup of 10,000 Thoroughbred horses, a team of researchers, led by Dr. Emmeline Hill, of Dublin’s University College, recently announced that an astonishing 97% descended from Canada’s Northern Dancer.
I knew the numbers would be high, because I’ve been following the global influence of our great Canadian champion since publication of my book Northern Dancer: the legend and his legacy in 1995. But, even to me, 97% seems mighty outrageous.
The whole thing is even more remarkable considering that from the time he was born at Windfields Farm in Oshawa, this feisty Canadian colt was dismissed time and again because of his size. Short and stocky, he not only looked more like a compact quarter horse than a streamlined Thoroughbred, and unlike the long, smooth strides of his equine peers, he ran with a quick choppy gait. Yet what Northern Dancer lacked in physical attributes, he more than compensated in heart and courage.
When Northern Dancer set out to challenge the best US horses in the 1964 Kentucky Derby, the easy favourite was California’s magnificent Hill Rise. Winner of 7 consecutive races including the Santa Anita Derby, the lanky bay colt was poised to leave Canada’s entry in the dust. Among those believing in Hill Rise’s superiority was Northern Dancer’s jockey, the legendary Bill Shoemaker. Prior to the big race, when offered the ride on Hill Rise, Shoemaker abandoned Canada’s colt. Still, on the first Saturday in May 1964, in living rooms across the nation, Canadians stopped whatever we were doing and joined friends and family in front of our tv sets to cheer on our horse.
Former managing editor of the Toronto Star, the late Ray Timson, was among a carload of Canadian journalists who drove to Kentucky to, hopefully, witness history. And so, they did: “From the grandstand packed with Kentuckians who bred 70 of the previous 89 winners, a new sound rose over the din of the 100,000 fans on the grounds. It came from five Canadians who stood proudly and let one verse of ‘O Canada’ rise from their hearts, as their hands clutched enough tickets on the winner to paper a wall.”
Northern Dancer had not only won the Kentucky Derby, he had sprinted around the Churchill Downs track faster than any horse in history. The moment he stuck his defiant nose across the finish line, he became “our horse,” and Canadians poured into the streets to celebrate.
It was likely one of the rare occasions Canadians, from coast to coast, all agreed on something important. Well, almost everyone. When the country’s sportswriters and editors benched a field of outstanding human athletes, including a pair of Olympic gold-medalists, hockey legends Gordie Howe and Jean Beliveau; track sensations Bill Crothers and Harry Jerome to name Northern Dancer Canada’s Athlete of the Year, there was only one dissenter. Russ Taylor of radio station CFCF in Montreal and supporter of Bill Crothers, was outraged that the award went to a ‘beast.’
The mayor of Toronto, Philip Givens, was all for hosting a ticker-tape parade, but when he was advised that all the excitement would send the horse into a frenzy, he settled on declaring Monday, June 8, 1964 ‘Northern Dancer Day’ in Toronto. A civic reception was held in his honour at city hall and the mayor awarded Northern Dancer a key to the city – carved out of a carrot. Before long his owners, Eddie ‘EP’ and Winifred Taylor, were deluged with sacks of fan mail at their Windfields Farm estate in North Toronto.
Still few horse experts beyond Canadian borders gave him much thought. Indeed, when Eddie Taylor set out to breed champion horses in Canada, his Kentucky friends advised him to save his money: “too much ice and snow,” they cried. So, when Northern Dancer won their coveted Kentucky Derby, the experts south of our border shrugged the whole thing off as a fluke. Yet, today our little Canadian colt no-one wanted is, genetically, the most dominant Thoroughbred stallion on the planet.
How the heck did that happen?
Well, for starters, Northern Dancer totally knew he was meant to be a super stud. Yes, horses know these things. In the wild, only the strongest horses are allowed to breed. As with other animals, it is innate – integral to their survival. Each herd of feral horses will have one stallion. He will possess superior strength and stamina and will fight to maintain his position. In theory, he will pass on this strength and stamina to his offspring.
In the case of Northern Dancer, from the time he was retired from racing and took up residence at the stallion barn at Windfields Farm, he assumed his new career with a commitment seldom seen. It seems he was prepared to breed every mare that was vanned to the farm and destined to be mated with one of the half-dozen stallions in the barn.
When another stallion was led past his stall en route to the breeding arena, Northern Dancer flew into a rage. Rearing, hollering, and slamming around his stall, he kicked over water buckets and demolished feed tubs.
Harry Green, Windfields stallion manager, told me how one morning he and his assistant were sitting in the tack room awaiting the arrival of a horse van bringing a mare to be bred to one of the stallions. Suddenly they heard a great clattering. Northern Dancer, it appears, was attempting to climb up the wall and somehow escape through a very small window high up in this stall, in order to be the first to greet the new arrival.
It seems, they discovered, that Northern Dancer’s ability to sense a mare in season was more acute than most. To test their theory, Harry Green and his assistants began monitoring Northern Dancer’s instincts. As soon as they heard the racket emanating from Northern Dancer’s stall, Harry noted the time. Then wrote down the arrival time of the mare. Indeed, they determined, via their non-scientific method, that Northern Dancer could likely detect a mare in season at least a mile away. Likely much further.
Coincidentally, and in light of the many challenges facing horse racing in North America today, Northern Dancer stands at the crossroads between the past and the future of racing and breeding. Our Canadian hero emerged from an age where owning Thoroughbreds was an expensive hobby and great fortunes were spent maintaining the horses and stables. Canadian owners were a ‘who’s who’ of corporate boardrooms: EP Taylor, Joseph Seagram, Conn Smythe, Jean-Louis Leveque, etc., etc. Yet Northern Dancer played the pivotal role in changing the Thoroughbred game to one in which horses were a commodity more valuable than gold, and in which the new breed of owner set out to make vast fortunes from these animals.
The chain of events that led to Northern Dancer in the first place began in the fall of 1950 when Colonel Sam McLaughlin, avid horseman and founder of Canada’s automobile industry, was nearing his 80th birthday. He had received offers for his Parkwoods horse farm on the northern fringes of Oshawa, but did not want his beloved farm go to developers. So, he approached EP Taylor, the country’s most prominent Thoroughbred owner.
But Taylor and his wife had built Windfields, their own splendid farm at what is now the area of Bayview and York Mills in the north end of Toronto. Eventually Taylor got the idea to turn Parkwoods into the National Stud, as in the UK and Ireland, a facility devised to benefit everyone in upgrading their breeding stock. Canadian horse owners, however, lacked Taylor’s vision and saw little point in availing themselves of the opportunity.
Undeterred, Taylor took it upon himself, and in doing so clearly raised the bar. It was the fall of 1952 and since the birthplace of the Thoroughbred is Newmarket, England, he contacted the British Bloodstock agency with the request for the finest broodmare offered for sale at the December Newmarket sale. Her name was Lady Angela and she hailed from a long line of the very finest bluebloods. Lady Angela’s first Canadian-born foal was a colt that Winifred Taylor named Nearctic. He would emerge as the sire of Northern Dancer.
Still the hullabaloo over Northern Dancer, and the impetus behind the 97% statistics, was sparked by a son of Northern Dancer. He was named Nijinsky for the renowned Russian ballet dancer who believed he would be reincarnated as a horse. Tall, elegant, physically he bore absolutely no resemblance to his sire. Instead, he resembled his grandfather, the aristocratic Nearctic.
Nijinsky had been purchased at the Canadian yearling sales and was shipped to Ireland to be trained by the legendary Vincent O’Brien. Nijinsky not only won the English Derby at Epsom, but the British Triple Crown – the Guineas, the Derby and St. Leger. No horse had won all three races since Bahram in 1935. None has since. Nijinsky also won the hearts of all those who witnessed this magnificent colt.
Among his fans were a band of Irish horse traders bent on purchasing Nijinsky. They had the idea that he would make an excellent stallion and they would glean many, many pots of gold. But his US owner, Charles Engelhard, already possessed many fortunes, including sacks of diamonds from mines in Africa, flatly refused to sell his colt.
Discouraged, but not defeated, the Irish horse-traders, devised a new plan. Since Nijinsky was a son of Canada’s Northern Dancer, and he had been purchased at a yearling sale, the Irishmen and their ‘banker,’ a son of a wealthy British bookmaker, set out for North America. Curiously Canadian sales were not on their agenda. Instead, they went directly to Kentucky.
Before long, and somewhat reluctantly, they purchased another Canadian-bred son of Northern Dancer. Other than genetically, the colt bore absolutely no resemblance to the magnificent Nijinsky. Instead, he was small, stocky and looked like his Canadian sire. To make matters worse, he was a golden chestnut with four prominent white stockings.
The horse game has its share of superstitions. Right near the top of the list is the one about chestnut coloured horses with white socks. The superstition goes like this: one white sock – buy the horse; two white socks – try the horse; three white socks – doubt the horse; four white socks – go without the horse. There is no scientific evidence to support the superstition, nonetheless, the Irish deliberated and deliberated before paying $200,000 (top dollar at the time) for this Canadian colt.
They named the horse The Minstrel and he too was flown to Ireland to be in the care of Vincent O’Brien. It wasn’t long before the Irish trainer realized The Minstrel’s disposition was as different from that of Nijinsky, as his physique. Where Nijinsky was volatile and acutely sensitive, The Minstrel was willing, eager and thoroughly rugged.
Time and again, The Minstrel would be compared with Nijinsky, and time and again he would be found lacking. No matter what he did, how fast he ran, how hard he tried – The Minstrel could never appease racing fans. Nor his new owners. Instead, he was stigmatized as Northern Dancer had been: simply too small, too Canadian, to be great.
His first big test was The Guineas trial, the leadup to the British Triple Crown races. The turf race course that day was a water-soaked swamp. The ground was so boggy they couldn’t get the starting gate through the mire. Instead they had the horses line up and gallop off at the drop of a flag. If humans were asked to run under those circumstances they would simply have sat down and refused to run. But The Minstrel slogged through the muck, as was his wont, at the head of the pack. Nearly all the other horses in the field never won a race after that. The dreadful conditions with sapped their energy, or heart, or both.
Nonetheless, his Irish horse-trading owners set The Minstrel out to race two weeks later. He finished a very close second. Then another fortnight later they entered him in the English Derby: the ultimate test of a Thoroughbred racehorse. Why? In this high stakes world of horse breeding, if a horse wins the Derby many owners will instantly syndicate the horse and charge big bucks for breeding rights.
For example, breeding rights to Justify, winner of 2018 Kentucky Derby and US Triple Crown were purchased by Coolmore Stud for a reported $75 million. His stud fee reported at $150,000. He covered 252 mares in 2019. Do the math.
Curiously, Coolmore Stud, with operations in Ireland, Kentucky and Australia, are the said same Irish horse-traders that purchased The Minstrel all those years ago. For them, this courageous son of Northern Dancer, was clearly their leprechaun with the pot of gold. Indeed, had their gamble not paid off, the world of the horse would be a very different place. Especially for the Irish horse-traders.
Instead, when the little Canadian chestnut colt with four white socks, who would never live up to Nijinsky captured the most important race in the world, his Canadian breeder, EP Taylor made the Irish horse-traders a deal they could not refuse. Convinced that The Minstrel, as a stallion, was heir apparent to Northern Dancer, Taylor wanted the colt back to stand at stud alongside his sire at Taylor’s Windfields Farm. Taylor offered to buy The Minstrel back from the Irish horse-traders for ten times the $200,000 they had paid his Windfields Farm for the colt.
At the time, I was living on the Taylor’s Bayview Avenue Windfields estate employed as rider-in-residence, working with the horses and accompanying 76-year-old Taylor whenever he chose to ride. Which, incidentally, was frequently.
I had been out jogging around the estate and when passing the manor house, I saw the Rolls Royce parked by the front door. The trunk was still open and assumed the Taylor’s had just returned from Saratoga, New York where, along with attending the races and the horse sales, he was cheerfully selling his friends on buying shares of The Minstrel.
It wasn’t difficult. According to his son, Charles, “he was sold out in an hour or two and dad had to ask for more shares from the Irish to meet the demand.”
It seems that as soon as he and his wife returned from Saratoga, Taylor had walked directly to the stables in search of me, the one person on the estate who would clearly be interested in how things went. Since there was no one at the stables he was about to return to their home. At that very moment I was rounding a tall cedar hedge at the end of my run and we almost collided.
“Ah there you are,” he said. “I’ve been looking for you. You are really going to like The Minstrel. He is so much like Northern Dancer.”
We then went for a walk around the estate and ended up at the office, a gatehouse at the north/west corner of the vast property. What I recall most from that afternoon was how he was just beaming from the excitement – the idea that his Windfields Farm could have produced yet another horse to have won the English Derby.
So, while Eddie Taylor was delighted to have The Minstrel back home, Northern Dancer was not particularly pleased to see his son show up in the Windfields stallion barn. Instead he was angry and upset. Perhaps he sensed that the young stallion was a threat
When Northern Dancer was 20 years old a French syndicate offered $40,000,000 for the now aging stallion. The offer was rejected. That same year his stud fee was raised to $100,000 no guarantee. By 1984 it was $500,000, no guarantee. Thereafter until Northern Dancer retired from stud 15 April 1897, as much as $1 million was paid for a single breeding.
According to People magazine Northern Dancer ranked as the only celebrity to earn one million dollars before breakfast.
The whole thing had become so outrageous that Northern Dancer’s worth as a stallion eventually far surpassed any possible dollar value. It was as if humanity’s age-old love affair with the horse had taken a quantum leap into the bizarre. As the passion escalated, Thoroughbred racing shifted from sport to big business.
Owners may have paid millions for Northern Dancer yearlings, but a number of the colts were syndicated for up to 10 times the original investment. And in the process, the structure and destiny of Thoroughbred racing changed drastically.
Genetically, however, Northern Dancer kept up his end of the bargain. The little Canadian colt no one wanted not only proved to be genetically superior, but frequently passed on his genetic supremacy. Many of his offspring proved to be sires and dams of yet another generation of great champions.
Now, however, according to geneticist, Dr. Emmiline Hill, at the helm of the research at Dublin’s University College, the genetic scales may well be out of balance: “Inbreeding has always been high in Thoroughbreds, but it is getting higher. It is likely that, unchecked, inbreeding in the Thoroughbred will continue to increase in a market where there is high demand for particular sire lines. The problem with inbreeding is that it can compromise overall population fertility and health. This is a highly significant issue akin to global warming, where inbreeding is accumulating in the population, that must be addressed at an industry-wide level.”
The Thoroughbred, incidentally, is a hybrid: the result of combining the Arabian desert horses, finely-built animals able to endure extreme heat, and designed to carry its rider across endless desolate stretches of sand, with the Scottish Galloway: a strong, sturdy horse able to endure the damp and cold weather of Scotland, plow through bogs and gallop over hill and dale.
According to German botanist, Gregor Mendel, scientific findings confirm that the convergence of genetic streams can create a hardier hybrid. Is it possible that Canada’s northern, and often harsh climate was also a component in the creation of a more vigorous strain of Thoroughbred?
My late grandfather, a horseman to the bone, would suggest the answer is Yes. He would remind me of the importance of how and where horses are raised, which would include the terrain, quality of their grazing lands, and the climate.
And I contend that here, in the dreaded ice and snow the Kentuckians warned Eddie Taylor about all those years ago, is clearly a factor in the genetic superiority not only of Northern Dancer, but of Canadian horses in general.
Years ago, a leading US Thoroughbred magazine invited me to write a piece on Canada’s contribution to the Thoroughbred gene pool. The editor expected I cold sum the whole thing up in 2,500 words. I wrote over 30,000. Since the article would consume a big chunk of the magazine, they opted to run the story in chunks over a period of several months. Needless to say, it lost its punch. Eventually I took the original research, spoke with experts, dug deeper, made a heap of discoveries.
What I uncovered was a series of extraordinary genetic streams which I traced from their often-turbulent sources to the powerful source they exert on today’s champions. Yes, it appears, we have created a hardier hybrid. The book, “Rivers of Gold,” was released in the fall of 2018.
Over the years I spent time any number of times in the presence of Northern Dancer, but our final visit stands out in my memory which I wrote about and have excerpted from my book “Northern Dancer the legend and his legacy”
“.. Northern Dancer is standing several yards away, in the centre of his paddock, his head lifted slightly. His ears are perked, his eyes focused on the horizon. He is standing still, which is curious: he was turned out in his paddock at sunrise and had been patrolling his domain the past seven hours, slowing only occasionally to grab a mouthful of grass. Now and then, when some far-off sound or movement caught his attention, he stopped briefly and sniffed the air, but then he was off again.
He stopped patrolling about one o’clock, when groom, Bill Husfelt started leading the other stallions back to the barn for their afternoon meal. Northern Dancer calmly watched the procession, and hasn’t moved in the half hour since.
Suddenly the silence is shattered by a piercing scream.
Now, only feet from the gate, Northern Dancer is up on his hind legs, hollering wildly. Bill is inside paddock, keeping a cautious eye on the stallion’s slashing hooves. Northern Dancer slams his right hoof into the soft dirt with all his might. His nostrils are flaring, his eyes fierce.
Northern Dancer is 29, a very, very old horse considering the life expectancy of Thoroughbred stallions is about 22 years. For a horse his age to be rearing and hollering is as unlikely as an 80-year-old man to be pole-vaulting over his back fence into his neighbour’s flower garden. Yet there he is – still as wild as the wind…”
There can be little doubt that Northern Dancer knew that he was the’ King of the herd.’ Likely, if he’d had his druthers, the entire Thoroughbred population would descend from him. Not just the 97%