At just over 15 hands, Northern Dancer looked more like a quarter horse than a Thoroughbred – squat and muscular in contrast to the sleek, almost graceful animals that raced against him. But he received nothing but respect from the horse racing world in 1964 and beyond.
His first season as a 2-year-old turned heads – seven victories in nine starts, mostly in Canada. But even after a solid win in the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct, Northern Dancer lost the 2-year-old championship to Hurry to Market, a colt who had won only 3 of 7 starts, and Raise a Native, who was 4 for 4. Both colts would suffer career-ending injuries, leaving Northern Dancer as the heir apparent to the 3-year-old season.
He did not disappoint. After running third in an allowance race on Feb. 11, he won the Flamingo Stakes by two lengths, then followed that with wins in the Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes. Before the Blue Grass, trainer Horatio Luro asked Northern Dancer’s jockey, the great Bill Shoemaker, if he would ride Northern Dancer in the Kentucky Derby. But Shoemaker chose undefeated Hill Rise over the Canadian champion – a decision that haunted him.
Success at the Derby
In the Derby, Northern Dancer, the second choice, had a good trip, unlike the favorite Hill Rise, who was bumped twice at the start and forced wide on the far turn. 179-1 longshot Royal Shuck took the field through an incredible :22 2/5 quarter mile – the fastest that had ever been run in a Derby. Mr. Brick took over from him, slowing down only slightly to finish a half-mile in :46 flat. As the tightly-bunched field rounded the turn for home, jockey Bill Hartack took Northern Dancer off the rail and into the lead, stretching it to two lengths by the eighth pole.
But here came Hill Rise, and he was gaining ground quickly. Hartack took the whip to Northern Dancer, and the little colt responded, finishing a neck in front of Hill Rise and Bill Shoemaker in a record 2:00. He became the first Canadian-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby.
In the Preakness, Hill Rise was still the favorite at 4-5. At the start, Big Pete took the lead but was soon overtaken on the backstretch by Quadrangle. That’s when Northern Dancer made his move, and entering the far turn he had taken the lead.
Here came Hill Rise again. Halfway through the far turn, he got to within 1/2 length of Northern Dancer. Hartack applied the whip again, and Northern Dancer pulled away, 2 1/2 lengths in front of The Scoundrel. Hill Rise was a nose behind in third.
Coming up Short
Northern Dancer was finally made the favorite for the Belmont Stakes, with Hill Rise the second choice. 42-1 shot Orientalist set a slow pace. Quadrangle took over the lead at the mile pole, and the Dancer once again made his move entering the far turn. He was only 1/2 length behind at the eighth pole.
Then he ran out of gas.
A very tired Northern Dancer faded quickly, and Roman Brother passed him for second as Quadrangle pulled the upset, stunning the crowd of 61,000 – the largest ever to watch a Belmont Stakes.
After losing the Belmont, Northern Dancer took the Queen’s Plate, the most prestigious race in Canada, by 7 1/2 lengths. But an ankle injury ended his career shortly thereafter. His career record was 14 wins, 2 places and 2 shows in 18 races. He never finished out of the money.
Northern Dancer then began his stud career. His first few crops looked promising, and then his genes kicked in. He sired 1970 British Triple Crown winner Nijinsky II and two other Epsom Derby winners and at one point stood for $1 million. He was the leading sire in North America in 1971 and 1977 and led the English/Irish sire list four times. He sired 411 winners and 147 stakes winners from 645 named foals. In the 2014 Kentucky Derby, all 20 horses had Northern Dancer in their pedigree.
He may not have won the Triple Crown, but he certainly stands as one of the greatest sires in history.