Apr. 26, 2011, 02:45 PM
TB Times article.
Canada’s Northern Dancer is the 20th century’s best sire of sires
by John P. Sparkman
In his first crop, foaled in 1966, Northern Dancer sired ten stakes winners from 21 foals, a 47.6% strike rate. Had he maintained that percentage throughout his 22 subsequent crops, Northern Dancer would have been, hands down, the best sire of racehorses in the history of the breed.
Instead, the great son of Nearctic was about half that good over his entire career, with 147 stakes winners from 645 foals, or 22.8%. That made him the best sire of the second half of the 20th century. Only Bold Ruler and his sire, *Nasrullah, managed similar percentages in that era and, though still powerful, their male lines have been overshadowed over the past 25 years by Northern Dancer’s line.
Foaled on May 27, 1961, at E. P. Taylor’s Windfields Farm near Oshawa, Ontario, Northern Dancer came from the first crop of Taylor’s Canadian champion Nearctic and was the first foal of the great Canadian breeder’s stakes-placed Native Dancer mare Natalma. The late foaling date occurred because Natalma had chipped a bone in her knee while training for the 1960 Kentucky Oaks and was rushed off to the breeding shed to help fill Nearctic’s book.
Northern Dancer was a small but powerful colt with a lively temperament.
Fortunately, he inherited neither his dam’s calf knees nor his sire’s curby hocks. Despite his small stature, he was one of three yearlings priced at $25,000 for Windfields’s annual private, prepriced yearling sale in 1962. The other two sold; luckily for Taylor, Northern Dancer did not.
Northern Dancer made his debut for Windfields’s second-string trainer, T. P. Fleming, on August 2, 1963, winning a 5 1/2-furlong maiden race at Fort Erie racetrack by 6 3/4 lengths in 1:06 1/5 under apprentice rider Ron Turcotte. He was beaten four lengths by Ramblin Road in the 6 1/2-furlong Vandal Stakes at the same track two weeks later but then scored a 1 1/4-length victory in the Summer Stakes at one mile on heavy turf.
Transferred to Luro
That victory earned him a promotion to Windfields’s first-string trainer, Horatio Luro, at Woodbine, but he ran second to Grand Garcon while conceding that colt 11 pounds in the Cup and Saucer Stakes in his first start for Luro. Under the Racing Hall of Fame trainer’s tutelage, Northern Dancer closed his two-year-old season with a five-race win streak, including the Coronation Futurity and Carleton Stakes in Canada. He sealed his reputation as the best juvenile in Canada with two wins at Aqueduct, first trouncing Futurity Stakes winner Bupers by eight lengths in a one-mile allowance race and then beating Lord Date by two lengths in the Remsen Stakes.
Northern Dancer was rated joint-sixth at 123 pounds (three below highweight Raise a Native, who already had been retired to stud) on the Experimental Free Handicap, and his potential as a classic colt was obvious.
Half fit, he was beaten in his first start at three in 1964 and then won seven consecutive races-an allowance race, an exhibition race, the Flamingo Stakes, Florida Derby, Blue Grass Stakes, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness Stakes. Each of those victories was characterized by his ability to sit just off the pace at a high cruising speed, produce a sharp burst of acceleration, and then persevere gamely to the wire.
In the Kentucky Derby, 3.40-to-1 Northern Dancer showed the advantage of being small and shifty, staying clear of trouble on the final turn while the larger, longer-striding, 7-to-5 favorite, Hill Rise, required more than a furlong to regain his momentum after being stopped briefly. The little Nearctic colt won by a neck over Hill Rise in track-record time of 2:00.
Northern Dancer won the Preakness by daylight, prevailing by 2 1/4 lengths over The Scoundrel, who had finished third in the Derby, with Hill Rise taking third. Northern Dancer’s winning streak ended in the Belmont Stakes, in which he finished third, sixth lengths behind winner Quadrangle. The colt strained a tendon slightly in the race, but he may not have stayed the Belmont’s 1 1/2 miles in any event. Luro held him together for one more race, winning the Queen’s Plate by 7 1/2 lengths, but the tendon went soon afterward and ended Northern Dancer’s racing career.
Champion United States three-year-old male of 1964 and Horse of the Year in Canada, Northern Dancer retired to stud with a record of 14 wins in 18 starts, two seconds, and two thirds, with earnings of $580,647. He stood his first season in 1965 at Windfields in Ontario for a $10,000 fee. While that was a high fee for Canada, few expected the chunky little bay to have much impact as a sire outside his native land.
That first crop included 1968 Canadian champion juvenile and Horse of the Year Viceregal (out of Victoria Regina, by *Menetrier), 1970-’71 Canadian champion handicap horse Dance Act (*Queen’s Statute, by Le Lavandou), top-class grass stayer One for All (Quill, by *Princequillo), ‘71 Widener Handicap winner True North (Hill Rose, by Rosemont), and ‘69 Canadian Oaks winner Cool Mood (Happy Mood, by *Mahmoud).
Therefore, when Irish trainer Vincent O’Brien went to the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society’s yearling sale in 1968 to buy a Windfields-bred *Ribot colt for Charles Engelhard, he knew that the sire of a striking bay colt out of Canadian Oaks winner Flaming Page, by Bull Page, could sire runners. O’Brien did not like that *Ribot colt, Northern Monarch, but he loved the Northern Dancer colt out of Flaming Page and bought him for $84,000. That colt was Nijinsky II, only winner of the English Triple Crown (in 1970) since *Bahram in ‘35. The sale of Nijinsky II and his subsequent achievements were the turning points of Northern Dancer’s stud career. Nijinsky II made him leading sire in England in 1970, and when O’Brien joined in partnership with Robert Sangster and John Magnier after Engelhard’s death, they pursued the progeny of Northern Dancer most heartily.
The O’Brien, Sangster, and Magnier team bought (or bred) and raced Northern Dancer’s top-class sons The Minstrel (Fleur, by Victoria Park), Be My Guest (What a Treat, by *Tudor Minstrel), El Gran Senor (Sex Appeal, by Buckpasser), Storm Bird (South Ocean, by New Providence), Try My Best (Sex Appeal, by Buckpasser), and Sadler’s Wells (Fairy Bridge, by Bold Reason).
Nijinsky II’s success also made Northern Dancer too big for Canada. In 1969, he was moved to Windfields’s Maryland branch, where he remained until his death in ‘90; he had been pensioned in ‘87. Northern Dancer’s progeny fueled the bloodstock boom of the 1980s, and no-guarantee seasons changed hands for $1-million during that period. Northern Dancer led the U.S. sire list in 1971 and the English list in ‘70, ‘77, ‘83, and ‘84.
Nijinsky II was Northern Dancer’s first-and best-international champion. Winner of the first 11 races of his 13-start career, the big, powerful, sickle-hocked Nijinsky II bore a strong physical resemblance to the Bull Lea-line ancestors of his dam but displayed every bit of Northern Dancer’s fire and electricity. Standing at Claiborne Farm, he led the English sire list in 1986.
Nijinsky II was never as prominent on the American sire list, but he led the American broodmare sire list in 1993 and ‘94. Not long after his death in 1992, he surpassed his sire’s record for stakes winners, with a career total of 155 stakes winners from 862 foals (18%).
That number included 12 champions and 97 group or graded winners, including 1987 Horse of the Year Ferdinand, ‘83 French champion Caerleon, dual English champion Ile de Bourbon, undefeated ‘82 Epsom Derby (Eng-G1) winner Golden Fleece, undefeated ‘95 Epsom Derby winner Lammtarra, and ‘86 Epsom Derby winner Shahrastani.
Ferdinand was unsuccessful at stud, but Caerleon led the English sire list in 1988 and ‘91 and put an exclamation point to his career with Marienbard’s 2002 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (Fr-G1) victory. Nijinsky II’s son Green Dancer led the French list in 1991, and he and Caerleon have top-class sons at stud. Ile de Bourbon sired only one significant horse, 1988 Epsom Derby winner Kahyasi, whose 53 stakes winners include classic winners Zainta and Vereva. Nijinsky II is not the sire of sires Northern Dancer was, but with Kahyasi, Green Tune, Hernando (Fr) (sire of Group 1 winner Sulamani ), and numerous other sons at stud, his branch of Northern Dancer is alive.
Although Northern Dancer was to become the greatest sire of sires of the century, his two best first-crop sons were only modestly successful. The unsound Viceregal sired two fast German horses, Esclavo and Solarstern, after his export. One for All did better, siring 30 stakes winners, including The Very One, but his tendency to sire grass-loving stayers did not endear him to American breeders.
Viceregal’s full brother, Vice Regent, from the same second crop as Nijinsky II, was an entirely different type from his elegant, refined brother and not as good a racehorse.
He became an extraordinary sire in Canada, however, leading the domestic sire list. His best offspring, 1981 Canadian Horse of the Year and U.S. champion two-year-old male Deputy Minister, led the U.S. general sire list in 1997-’98. Deputy Minister’s early sons Silver Deputy and Salt Lake have done well at stud, while his higher-class sons Awesome Again, Dehere, and Touch Gold sired Grade 1 winners in their early crops, with Awesome Again siring 2004 U.S. Horse of the Year Ghostzapper.
The stud success of the non-stakes winner Vice Regent and of Northern Dancer’s good but far from outstanding runners Northern Jove (Junonia, by Sun Again) and Northfields (Little Hut, by Occupy) from his third crop signaled breeders that almost any son of Northern Dancer was worth a shot at stud. Northern Jove sired 1978 U.S. co-champion two-year-old filly Candy Eclair, and his high-class son Equalize led the Argentine sire list in ‘97.
Lyphard in fourth crop
Northern Dancer’s fourth-crop son Lyphard (Goofed, by *Court Martial) was even smaller than his sire and possessed similar abilities. Trained by Alec Head, Lyphard was one of the best two-year-olds in France in 1971 and won the Prix de la Foret and Prix Jacques le Marois (both now Group 1) at three. Lyphard was one of the best sires of the 1970s and ‘80s, leading the French sire list in 1978 and ‘79 and the U.S. list in ‘86.
Lyphard’s best European-raced son, Dancing Brave, was an inconsistent stallion, but he sired 1993 Epsom Derby winner Commander in Chief. Lyphard’s best American son, Manila, suffered from the prejudice against American grass horses.
Lyphard sired 115 stakes winners from 843 foals (13.6%), and his line also persists regionally in South Africa, Argentina, and Brazil. Lyphard is responsible for the most genetically distant leading sire from the Northern Dancer line. His great-grandson Linamix (by Mendez, by Bellypha [Ire], by Lyphard) led the French sire list in 1998 and 2004.
Another diminutive son, the white-faced, inbred (3x2 to Nearctic’s dam, *Lady Angela) Northern Taste (Lady Victoria, by Victoria Park), won the Prix de la Foret (Fr-G1) in 1974 and led the Japanese sire list 11 times.
Be My Guest and The Minstrel were both purchased as yearlings in 1975 by O’Brien and partners. Though The Minstrel, a three-quarter brother to Nijinsky II, was clearly the better of the two on the racecourse, winning the Epsom Derby, Irish Derby (Ire-G1), and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes (Eng-G1) in 1977, Be My Guest became the foundation rock of Coolmore Stud. Leading sire in England when his first-crop son Assert (Ire) was a three-year-old in 1984, Be My Guest has intermittently produced top-level horses throughout a long career, but his line does not appear likely to persist.
The Minstrel’s best son, L’Emigrant, was unsuccessful at stud, but the less-talented Palace Music sired two-time Horse of the Year Cigar, as well as Australian Group 1 winner Naturalism. Cigar’s infertility probably sounded the death knell for The Minstrel’s line.
The beautifully bred Sovereign Dancer (Bold Princess, by Bold Ruler) was a modest racehorse, placing in stakes, but he was far more effective as a stallion. Sovereign Dancer sired 56 stakes winners from 592 foals (9.5%), including Preakness Stakes (G1) winners Gate Dancer and Louis Quatorze. Sovereign Dancer’s French-trained son Priolo was sire of French champion Sendawar.
The first of Northern Dancer’s two top-class sons out of the Buckpasser mare Sex Appeal, Try My Best, was the best two-year-old in England and Ireland in 1977 but did not train on at three. Markedly back at the knee, he was an inconsistent stallion who got one outstanding son in Last Tycoon (Ire).
Champion sprinter in Europe and winner of the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) in 1986, Last Tycoon led something of a checkered career as a stallion, standing periodically in Ireland, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand. Leading sire in Australia in 1994, Last Tycoon has not yet secured his male line.
Fabulous Dancer (Last of the Line, by The Axe II) never reached the top of the tree as a racehorse but led the French sire list in 1992. His fillies were rather better than his colts. Northern Baby (Two Rings, by Round Table) was a better racehorse, winning the 1979 Champion Stakes (Eng-G1), and was good but not great at stud. Neither line is likely to survive.
In many ways, the incredible success of Danzig (Pas de Nom, by Admiral’s Voyage) put the seal on Northern Dancer’s reputation as a sire of sires. Although undefeated in three sprints at two and three, Danzig never contested a stakes race and got his opportunity at Claiborne largely through the connection of his trainer, Woody Stephens, to the Hancock family, owners of Claiborne.
Danzig sired 1984 champion juvenile male Chief’s Crown and ‘85 Kentucky Derby (G1) and Belmont Stakes (G1) runner-up Stephan’s Odyssey in his first crop, had ‘86 Belmont winner Danzig Connection in his second crop, and never looked back. His three consecutive sire championships in 1991-’93 constituted the longest run of dominance in the U.S. since Bold Ruler’s seven consecutive years of leadership in the ‘60s.
Danzig also appears to be the best sire of sires among Northern Dancer’s sons. His son Danehill led the Australian list eight times and ended Sadler’s Wells’s long run as leading English sire in 2005. Danzig’s sons Belong to Me, Boundary, Chief’s Crown, Green Desert, Langfuhr, Pine Bluff, Polish Precedent, and others have proved they too can sire top-class runners. Boundary sired 2008 dual classic winner Big Brown, leading contender for champion three-year-old male honors. Also making clear that Danzig’s branch is here to stay are his grandsons Grand Lodge, sire of Sinndar and Grandera; Desert Sun (GB), sire of Sunline; and several of Danehill’s sons in Australia.
Danzig was euthanized at Claiborne on January 3, 2006, at age 29. His final crop consists of three-year-olds of 2008.
If Danzig demonstrated that Northern Dancer’s sons did not have to be racecourse champions to succeed, Nureyev (Special, by *Forli) came from the other end of the expectation spectrum. The top-priced yearling of his year, Nureyev finished first in his three starts (like Danzig), but all were stakes events, culminating in the 1980 Two Thousand Guineas (Eng-G1). Though he lost that race in the stewards’ room and never ran again because of a wind infirmity, Nureyev had proved his brilliance, and after one year at stud in France was reimported to Walmac International, where he stood the rest of his career until his death in November 2001.
Theatrical (Ire), Nureyev’s son from that one French-sired crop, remains his best son at stud to date, but his best son, 1997 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Peintre Celebre, has shown ability to sire a top-class horse. Nureyev’s Group 1-winning son Polar Falcon was not outstanding at stud but left behind a very good son in the sprinter Pivotal, who gets top-class winners over longer distances, as well.
Also a high-priced yearling, Storm Bird earned champion two-year-old honors in England and Ireland in 1980 but was mysteriously attacked by a stablehand before he could run at three and never regained his form. A good sire of racehorses, Storm Bird became an even more important sire of sires, numbering 1999 and 2000 leading sire Storm Cat and successful sires Bluebird and Summer Squall among his best runners.
Storm Cat became the world’s number-one commercial sire, and his sons and grandsons were sought after by breeders. The somewhat intermittent successes of Tabasco Cat, Forest Wildcat, and Hennessy have fueled the popularity of Storm Cat’s sons. Storm Cat’s son Giant’s Causeway has already sired 20 group or graded winners from his first four crops, including Shamardal, Europe’s champion two-year-old male in 2004; ‘05 Two Thousand Guineas winner Footstepsinthesand; and the multiple Grade 1 winner First Samurai, who went to stud for 2007.
Dixieland Band (Mississippi Mud, by Delta Judge) was several pounds below top class as a racehorse, counting the 1984 Massachusetts Handicap (G2) as his best win, but he has exceeded expectations as a stallion. Sire of 115 stakes winners from 1,236 foals (9.3%), he rarely sires anything really top class but delivers graded winners with great consistency and is an outstanding broodmare sire.
El Gran Senor is second only to Nijinsky II as a racehorse among Northern Dancer’s sons. Champion two- and three-year-old in England and Ireland, El Gran Senor had his stud career compromised by substandard fertility. Still, he sired a high percentage of stakes winners (13.3%), even though breeders were understandably reluctant to send him their best mares. None of his good sons gave much indication of carrying on his line.
El Gran Senor’s stablemate and contemporary Sadler’s Wells (Fairy Bridge, by Bold Reason) was not quite so brilliant, but he has become Northern Dancer’s most dominant son at stud. Sire of a long succession of top-class milers and middle-distance horses, Sadler’s Wells led the English-Irish sire list a record-equaling 14 times. The Coolmore-based stallion also led the French list four times. Sadler’s Wells’s percentages are not quite as high as those of Nijinsky II, Danzig, or Nureyev, but they are remarkable considering the large books of mares he served annually.
Sadler’s Wells’s sons Fort Wood, In the Wings (GB), Saddlers’ Hall (Ire), and Scenic (Ire) have all sired top-class sons, and there is more help on the way. His son Montjeu (Ire), Europe’s champion three-year-old male in 1999, has already sired 2005 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Hurricane Run, Epsom Derby winner Motivator, and Juddmonte Grand Prix de Paris (Fr-G1) winner Scorpion. And Sadler’s Wells’s son Galileo (Ire), winner of the 2001 Epsom Derby, is off to a fast start at stud also.
Sadler’s Wells’s once-raced full brother, Fairy King, was a different physical type, and the racing character of his offspring is quite different from that of Sadler’s Wells’s progeny. Fairy King was much more likely to sire specialist milers and less likely to sire 1 1/2-mile winners than his brother, but, because of his brief racing career, he had to make his own way early in his stud career.
He did so brilliantly with fast two-year-olds in his first two crops. With better mares, the number of middle-distance runners increased, and Fairy King led the French sire list in 1996, the year his best son, Helissio, won the Arc. Falbrav (Ire), bred just like Helissio, heaped posthumous honors on his sire in 2002-’03.
Unfuwain (Height of Fashion [Fr], by Bustino) was Northern Dancer’s last good son and, though he never reached the heights of his half brother Nashwan, he has proved to be a better sire. Unfuwain’s champion son Alhaarth sired 2004 Two Thousand Guineas and Champion Stakes winner Haafhd.
A place in history
Few, if any, stallions have ever sired as many good stallion sons as has Northern Dancer. His male-line ancestor Phalaris sired five top stallions in Pharos, Fairway, *Pharamond II, *Sickle, and Colorado. Phalaris’s grandson and Northern Dancer’s grandsire, Nearco, sired *Nasrullah, *Royal Charger, Dante, *Amerigo, and Nearctic.
*Nasrullah, probably the next-best sire of sires of the century, got Bold Ruler, Never Bend, Red God, Grey Sovereign, Never Say Die, and Nashua.
Northern Dancer can count at least 11 sons as truly outstanding sires: Be My Guest, Danzig, El Gran Senor, Fairy King, Lyphard, Nijinsky II, Northern Taste, Nureyev, Sadler’s Wells, Storm Bird, and Vice Regent.
His place in history is secure. [I]John P. Sparkman is bloodstock editor of Thoroughbred Times. Sales editor Pete Denk contributed to this article.