He was Canada’s greatest stud. Why 97 per cent of the world’s thoroughbreds are descended from Northern Dancer

After testing the genetic makeup of 10,000 thoroughbred horses around the world, a team of researchers led by Dr. Emmeline Hill, of Dublin’s University College, recently announced that an astonishing 97 per cent 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 the publication of my book Northern Dancer: The Legend and His Legacy in 1995. But, even to me, 97 per cent 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 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 for with heart and courage.

When Northern Dancer set out to challenge the best U.S. horses in the 1964 Kentucky Derby, the easy favourite was California’s magnificent Hill Rise. Winner of seven 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 they were doing and joined friends and family in front of their TV sets to cheer on their horse.

Northern Dancer not only won the Kentucky Derby, he 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 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 Béliveau and 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, a supporter of Bill Crothers, was outraged that the award went to a “beast.”

Northern Dancer goes past applauding fans and amateur photographers in the post parade before the 1964 Queen's Plate in Toronto -- which he proceeded to win.

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 “E.P.” 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 said. Even when Northern Dancer won their coveted Kentucky Derby, the experts shrugged the whole thing off as a fluke. Yet, today the 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.

(With thoroughbreds, artificial insemination is not used, so breeding happens the old-fashioned way.)

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 the stall, in order to be the first to greet the new arrival.

It seems 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 would note the time. Then he would write 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. The Canadian hero emerged from an age when 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: E.P. Taylor, Joseph Seagram, Conn Smythe, among others.

Speculation at the time of this photo in 1964 (at least among Star caption writers) was that Northern Dancer suspected guard Grant McKenzie was hiding some sugar.

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 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 estate to go to developers. So, he approached E.P. Taylor, the country’s most prominent thoroughbred owner.

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 U.K. 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 to request the finest broodmare offered for sale at the December Newmarket sale. Her name was Lady Angela.

Lady Angela’s first Canadian-born foal was a colt that Winifred Taylor named Nearctic. He would emerge as the sire, or father, of Northern Dancer.

Still the impetus for the 97 per cent statistic 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 and 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 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.

Among Nijinsky’s fans were a band of Irish horse traders bent on purchasing the colt. They had the idea that he would make an excellent stallion. But his U.S. owner, Charles Engelhard flatly refused to sell.

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.

The Irish deliberated and deliberated before paying $200,000 (top dollar at the time) for the 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.

Jockey Lester Piggott on The Minstrel at Ascot in 1977.

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, the first leg of 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 for the victory. 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.

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Nonetheless, his 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? 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 the 2018 Kentucky Derby and U.S. 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 same Irish horse-traders that purchased The Minstrel. For them, this courageous son of Northern Dancer was clearly their leprechaun with the pot of gold.

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 in 1977, his Canadian breeder, E.P. 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 10 times the $200,000 they had paid his Windfields Farm for the colt.

At the time, I was living on the Taylors’ 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.

The Taylors had just returned from Saratoga, N.Y., where, along with attending the races and the horse sales, Eddie had been cheerfully selling his friends on buying shares of The Minstrel.

“Ah there you are,” he said when he saw me. “I’ve been looking for you. You are really going to like The Minstrel. He is so much like Northern Dancer.”

But 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. Perhaps he sensed that the young stallion was a threat.

Northern Dancer circa 1966.

When Northern Dancer was 20, a French syndicate offered $40 million for the now aging stallion. The offer was rejected. That same year his stud fee was raised to $100,000. By 1984 it was $500,000. Thereafter until Northern Dancer retired from stud on April 15, 1987, as much as $1 million was paid for a single breeding.

According to People magazine Northern Dancer ranked as the only celebrity to earn $1 million 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.

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.

Genetically, however, Northern Dancer kept up his end of the bargain. Many of his offspring proved to be sires and dams of yet another generation of great champions.

Now, however, according to geneticist Emmeline 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, 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 the dreaded ice and snow that 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.

A plaque for Northern Dancer at the spot where the famous horse was foaled, at Windfields Farm in Oshawa.

Of the many times I was in the presence of Northern Dancer, my final visit stands out in my memory. I wrote about it in “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 the 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 …”

Likely, if he’d had his druthers, the entire thoroughbred population would descend from him. Not just the 97 per cent.

Muriel Lennox’s latest book, “The Secret Life of Horses,” will be released this fall.

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