04/25/2014 3:45PM

Northern Dancer's Derby influence continues

Churchill Downs
Northern Dancer won the Kentucky Derby in 1964.

“He probably takes a hundred more strides than anyone else in the race, but he’s harder to pass up than a third martini.”
– Jim Murray, Los Angeles Times

Conventional wisdom in racing has it that a good big horse will usually beat a good little horse. That’s certainly what future Hall of Fame jockey Bill Shoemaker thought in 1964 when he politely declined the mount on 15-hand Northern Dancer – the smallest and youngest entrant in the May 2 Run for the Roses – in favor of the six-inch taller Hill Rise. But it would prove to be one of those rare occasions when he was wrong.

On that afternoon, the pony from Canada confounded traditionalists, and Shoemaker as well, by bravely outlasting the long-striding behemoth from California and setting a two-minute-flat stakes and Churchill Downs record in the process.

Northern Dancer went onto the books as the Kentucky Derby’s 90th winner, but what happened in subsequent years ultimately mattered far more. During the next half-century, defying all reasonable odds, this tiny stallion, of lion heart and cheeky attitude, became the most pervasive genetic influence known to modern Thoroughbred breeding, leaving his stamp profoundly, indelibly, irrevocably imprinted in every nook and cranny of the globe where horse racing was – and continues to be – conducted.


“There are two kinds of horses: Northern Dancers ... and the rest.”
– British Thoroughbred owner and breeder Robert Sangster

As strange fortune would have it, the North American foal crop of 1961 produced not one, but two titanic influences on the breed. During their racing days, Northern Dancer and Raise a Native were very different colts, as different as night from day. One was a stocky, low-to-the-ground bay who soared through his classic season a genuine star; the other, a leggy chestnut who flashed briefly and tantalizingly across racing’s tableau, four starts without defeat, then gone.

Like patriot Ben Franklin of old, Northern Dancer, though North American-born and -raised, would become a citizen of the world – one with distinctly British proclivities, genetically speaking. Raise a Native, on the other hand, was, and remains, as American as the stars and stripes.

Overall, the “Dancer” clan, in terms of male-line influence, can these days be fairly divided into three groups: the North American, the European/Australasian, and the Worldwide Powers that Be.

Though there has been much crossover between categories, the former group has generally been dominated by sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons of Storm Bird, Vice Regent, and Dixieland Band, and the Europeans led by descendants of Sadler’s Wells, Lyphard, and Nureyev – while Danzig and Nijinsky II comfortably bestrode racing’s cosmos like twin titans of the universe.

Five decades have passed since Northern Dancer’s epic Derby triumph, and as we mark that golden anniversary, the time seems ripe to glance back upon whatever impact he may have exerted on this most famous of American classics.

How does the Kentucky Derby stand in terms of his massive influence? It’s an interesting dichotomy, actually. Whereas the veins of Derby contestants in recent years have been bursting with Dancer blood, when strictly male-line progeny are considered, the tiny winner from a half-century back has made surprisingly muted noise.

As virile, long-lasting, eminently successful, and ardently sought-after as Northern Dancer was as a progenitor, it is remarkable that only one of his offspring ever made it into the starting gate in a Kentucky Derby, that being 1977 seventh-place finisher Giboulee. And of his 250-plus sons who stood at stud worldwide since the early 1970s, a mere 13 sent out so much as a single Derby entrant. Not surprisingly, Danzig and Sovereign Dancer – both decent dirt sires – were tops among these, each with six, followed by Dixieland Band (five) and Nijinsky II and Storm Bird (three each). Only one Northern Dancer son, Nijinsky II, managed to get a Kentucky Derby winner – the ill-fated 1986 hero Ferdinand.

Many of his best, though American-based during their stud careers, were uniquely adept at getting European-style grass runners. Thus, it should come as no shock that Lyphard, Nureyev, The Minstrel, El Gran Senor, and Irish-located Sadler’s Wells were all underrepresented in the Louisville classic. In fact, they had not a single Derby color-bearer among them.

Circling back to Raise a Native, that one quite conversely evolved into a super-dominant Kentucky Derby force, freakishly good – most notably in the top stirp of the family tree. Although only one male-line Raise a Native horse has thus far captured the English Derby – Workforce in 2010 – 18 paternal-line descendants have proudly worn the roses since Majestic Prince launched the trend back in 1969. The primary Kentucky Derby influence of this undefeated whirling dervish of 1963 has come down magnificently through a trio of mighty sons: Mr. Prospector, Alydar, and Exclusive Native.

While Raise a Native’s top line routinely lights up the Churchill Downs tote board on the first Saturday in May, only four such victors have represented Northern Dancer in the patriarchal branch to this point.

Compare this to Northern Dancer’s paternal-line results in that corresponding race across the pond, the previously noted English Derby at 1 1/2 miles on grass, where 22 of his sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons, etc., have triumphed to date – beginning with the great Nijinsky II back in 1970 and followed by two other sons in The Minstrel (1977) and Secreto (1984).

Influence everywhere else

“I guess he just had the right genes in the right place at the right time.”
– Hall of Fame jockey Bill Hartack

Male line notwithstanding, Northern Dancer has been a ridiculously dynamic force to reckon with in every other twig of the Thoroughbred family tree as far as today’s Kentucky Derby is concerned.

In the eight-year span between 2006 and 2013, 145 of the 157 Derby starters possessed one or more hits of Northern Dancer’s blood. That’s 92.4 percent, for those into calculating. Inbreeding to the very popular 1964 Derby winner has become increasingly common over time, but in 2012, all 20 starters boasted at least one presence of his precious DNA in their respective gene pools – 18 of whom packed multiple doses. Of those, eight had three or more crosses; two – Trinniberg and Daddy Long Legs – owned four hefty dollops of Dancer blood; and the victorious I’ll Have Another was inbred no fewer than five times to the great stallion.

Clearly, it is getting increasingly difficult these days to find a true genetic outcross to Northern Dancer. Unbridled’s Song and A.P. Indy provide such, but if one happened to be looking for that exotic species among Derby starters, it would be very hard, indeed. For the record, the 12 Kentucky Derby entrants from the past eight seasons who lacked even a droplet of Northern Dancer blood included two geldings (Atomic Rain in 2009 and Sweetnorthernsaint, 2006), one who has since died (Nehro, 2011), and another, Revolutionary, who remains in training.

Of those currently at stud, the most high profile at the moment would be Ashford Stud’s Dunkirk, the 11th-place finisher in 2009 who in 2013 reigned supreme among North American freshman sires. Pure luck of the draw ... or simple testimony to the power of the outcross?