04/18/2014 4:52PM

Sparkman: Northern Dancer the biggest little horse


At the time I left Windfields Farm in Maryland for Kentucky in 1974, debate raged between the Oshawa, Ontario, office of Windfields Farm and the Maryland office over whether to raise Northern Dancer’s stud fee for 1975 to $25,000. Less than 10 years later, no-guarantee seasons to Northern Dancer sold on the open market for $1 million.

That incredible escalation in price for the opportunity to breed to the best sire of the second half of the 20th century encapsulates the effect of Northern Dancer on the Thoroughbred breed and the commercial Thoroughbred market perhaps better than the millions of words written about him in the five decades since the son of Nearctic captured the 1964 Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Queen’s Plate, and three other stakes.

By 1974, Northern Dancer was already well established as an outstanding sire. He had led the English sire list in 1970, when Nijinsky II won that country’s Triple Crown, and led the North American sire list the following year, when Lauries Dancer was Canadian Horse of the Year, Dance Act Canadian champion older horse, Minsky Canadian champion 3-year-old, Alma North a top 3-year-old filly in the United States, One for All won the Canadian International Championship, True North took the prestigious Widener Handicap, and Northfields captured the Louisiana Derby.

Northern Dancer’s transformation from local Canadian hero to international superstar, though, really began with the exploits of a colt born in Canada that March. That colt was the second consecutive son of Northern Dancer produced by Fleur, a big, rather coarse half-sister to Nijinsky II by Victoria Park.

The first colt, a medium-sized bay who resembled Fleur, sold for $275,000 to Robin Scully at the 1974 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale of select yearlings and won the Group 3 Prix Saint-Roman under the name of Far North. Fleur’s second Northern Dancer, though, was a prototypical “Northern Dancer type” – small, compact, and muscular, he was a blaze-faced chestnut with four white legs, too flashy for some old-fashioned horsemen.

That Northern Dancer–Fleur colt’s appearance at the 1975 Keeneland July sale of select yearlings happened to coincide with the first foray into the American yearling market by the partnership of Robert Sangster, Vincent O’Brien, and O’Brien’s son-in-law, John Magnier. O’Brien, the greatest European trainer of his era, had purchased Nijinsky II for $84,000 on behalf of Charles Engelhard at Windfields’s 1968 pre-priced yearling sale in Toronto. By Northern Dancer out of 1962 Queen’s Plate winner Flaming Page, by Bull Page, Nijinsky II won 11 of his 13 starts, including the 1970 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, as well as the English Triple Crown.

Understandably, O’Brien focused on the progeny of Northern Dancer at Keeneland, and the partnership managed to buy the chestnut colt out of Fleur for only $200,000. Though he was not as good as his three-quarter brother Nijinsky II, The Minstrel won seven of his nine starts at 2 and 3 in England and Ireland, including the Epsom Derby, Irish Derby, and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, the three most prestigious 1 1/2-mile events in England and Ireland.

The stated goal of the Sangster-O’Brien-Magnier partnership was to buy colts as yearlings, win major races with them, and then syndicate them as stallions at a profit. Shortly after his victory in the King George, the partnership syndicated The Minstrel for
$9 million to stand alongside his sire at Windfields’s Chesapeake City, Md., outpost.

The transformation of The Minstrel from a $200,000 yearling into a $9 million stallion quickly became the model that fueled the bloodstock boom of the 1970s and ’80s and remains the dominant hope of commercial breeders to this day. O’Brien and partners also bought, raced, and syndicated Northern Dancer’s champion and/or classic-winning sons El Gran Senor, Storm Bird, Try My Best, and Lomond. Be My Guest, another son of Northern Dancer purchased by O’Brien for Mrs. Allen Manning (nee Diana Guest), won three major stakes in England and Ireland and became the first stallion at the partners’ Coolmore Stud in Ireland.

The partnership’s fabulous success with The Minstrel and other lucrative stallion syndications naturally attracted competition from other wealthy buyers who entered the market in the 1970s. In 1978, Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos outbid the partnership at
$1.3 million for Nureyev, a small but beautiful Northern Dancer colt out of Special, by Forli, who finished first in all three of his starts but was controversially disqualified from his brilliant victory in the 2000 Guineas in 1980.

Three years later, Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum out-lasted the partnership at $3.3 million for Shareef Dancer, another small, beautiful Northern Dancer type out of Sweet Alliance, by Sir Ivor, who won the 1983 Irish Derby before being syndicated at a valuation reported as $40 million. By 1985, competition for the progeny of Northern Dancer and his sons Nijinsky II, Lyphard, The Minstrel, and Danzig reached record heights when the Coolmore partnership combined with Niarchos to outbid a syndicate led by American trainer D. Wayne Lukas at $13.1 million for Seattle Dancer, a Nijinsky II half-brother to American Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew.

Everybody wanted Northern Dancers because it seemed like they could do everything. He sired top-class runners on both grass and dirt; he sired many precocious 2-year-olds but also a few late developers; he sired brilliant six-furlong sprinters but plenty of six-furlong winners who also could stay 1 1/2 miles. The key asset the good Northern Dancers always seemed to have, though, was his own principal asset as a racehorse: the ability to accelerate from cruising speed to all-out sprint in a stride or two.

The real reason Northern Dancer was able to fuel such a huge run-up in commercial values, however, was that he had rapidly become perhaps the greatest sire of sires in the history of the Thoroughbred. Nijinsky II had become an immediate, huge success at Claiborne Farm, Lyphard was already a leading sire in France, Be My Guest a leading sire in England. Ultimately, as shown in the accompanying box, Northern Dancer sired at least 12 sons who led sire lists 54 times in major racing countries, a record unmatched by any other stallion.

Having lived with Northern Dancer quite literally in my backyard for two years in the early 1970s, when I worked as a broodmare barn foreman at Windfields, his later, overwhelming success was both amazing and not at all surprising. Though listed in advertisements at 15.2 hands, Northern Dancer’s withers actually touched the bar at perhaps a half-inch over 15 hands with shoes on. But he was the biggest little horse I ever met, both in body and in personality.

Extraordinarily broad and muscular through the chest, his back seemed as broad and flat as a tabletop, but there was a deep “ram’s groove” between his hindquarters. Forearm and gaskin flared with muscle, and though his legs were short, he was lengthy and perfectly balanced, with a long, beautifully arched neck.

If you knew Northern Dancer, though, the most striking thing about him was that he was, without the slightest doubt in his mind, the master of all he surveyed, and you had best never forget it. Always bright, friendly, and engaged, he nevertheless made it clear that he consented to follow your lead only because it was in his interest.

Though almost invariably, of necessity, mated with much larger mares, he never hesitated in the breeding shed, though on one memorable occasion a nasty-tempered mare backed him all the way across the breeding shed, heels flailing. Northern Dancer jumped right back up and finished his job.

Perhaps it is too obvious to state, but Northern Dancer’s record as a stallion bears the closest inspection. His 22.8 percent ratio of stakes winners to foals is the highest of the modern era, surpassing Bold Ruler’s 22.4 percent ratio. Remarkably, he was hardly the most fertile of stallions, averaging about 65 percent live foals from mares covered throughout his career. In 23 crops of foals, Northern Dancer averaged 28 foals per crop and never sired more than 36 foals in a single crop.

Stallion and broodmare management practices have, of course, changed a bit since Northern Dancer’s stud career, which spanned from 1965 through 1987. Given his comparatively low fertility, would modern stallion managers have tolerated his shaky output? Could Northern Dancer have become Northern Dancer in the modern era?

Like the great ones of human history, Northern Dancer was a product of his time, but he changed his era for the better. The Northern Dancer male line now accounts for about 33 percent of graded stakes winners in North America annually, primarily through the Storm Cat, Danzig, and Deputy Minister branches of his male line. In Europe and Australia, however, his male line accounts for more than 60 percent of group stakes winners, primarily through Sadler’s Wells and Danzig.

Inevitably, such global dominance appears likely to place Northern Dancer eventually in a position similar to that now held by Phalaris in the Thoroughbred breed. By the middle of the 21st century, the Thoroughbred will be made in Northern Dancer’s image.