Northern Dancer, champion racer and record-setting sire,is dead

November 17, 1990|By Michael Ollove Dale Austin of The Sun's sports staff contributed to this article.

Northern Dancer, winner of the 1964 Kentucky Derby and Preakness and the most commercially successful sire in thoroughbred history, died yesterday at the Maryland farm where he lived for two decades. He was 29.

Late Thursday night, the stallion, whose offspring have sold for a staggering total of $183.7 million, developed colic, a stomach ailment that is the most prevalent killer of horses.

He was destroyed by lethal injection at dawn yesterday at the Northview Stallion Station in Chesapeake City. He will be buried near Toronto at Windfields Farm in Oshawa, Canada, where he was born.

"If he were a younger horse we would have sent him to a veterinary hospital for an operation," said Ric Waldman, vice president of Windfields. "At his age, it would have been inhumane to subject him to an operation."

A small but determined racehorse named America's champion 3-year-old in 1964, Northern Dancer's greatest legacy was his success in siring horses that won an estimated $27 million for their owners.

He produced an unequaled 143 winners of stakes, the world's top-class races. Only two other horses in history have produced more than 100 stakes winners, and one of them, Nijinsky II, was Northern Dancer's son.

At one time during his heyday, Northern Dancer commanded approximately $1 million to mate with a mare. In a departure from a horse-racing convention, that price tag did not come with a guarantee that the union produce a foal.

"You're really tempted to say that when the century is over, you will think of him as the greatest sire in the 20th century," said Edward Bowen, editor-in-chief of Blood-Horse, a Lexington, Ky., magazine serving the thoroughbred racing and breeding industries. "The tremendous influence he had and will continue to have is not approached by more than a half-dozen other sires."

Northern Dancer is the latest in a string of famous thoroughbred champions who have died in the past 13 months.

Triple Crown winner Secretariat, considered by many to be the greatest thoroughbred of all time, died in October 1989. The filly Go For Wand was destroyed at Belmont Park after breaking a leg in the stretch Oct. 27, Breeders Cup Day. Alydar, runner-up to Affirmed in all three 1978 Triple Crown races and among the world's most sought-after sires, was destroyed after breaking a leg Thursday at Calumet Farm, Lexington, Ky.

As a yearling, nothing about Northern Dancer suggested the accomplishments that lay ahead. When the colt was 1 year old, his first owner, Canadian industrialist E. P. Taylor, tried to sell him, but no one was willing to pay his price of $25,000.

Mr. Taylor decided to race the horse himself, and in 1963 Northern Dancer rewarded his owner by becoming Canada's 2-year-old champion. The next year, he dominated American racing with victories in two legs of the Triple Crown.

He was the first Canadian-bred ever to win the Derby, where he set a course record that stood until Secretariat surpassed it in 1973. When he retired to stud at the end of 1964, he had won 14 out of 18 races.

In 1969, Mr. Taylor moved him to his Chesapeake City farm, then also known as Windfields.

Though muscular, Northern Dancer was short and blocky and lacked the classically elegant, long-legged beauty of most winning thoroughbreds. Yet, after entering stud,he quickly proved himself capable of producing winner after winner. His value soared.

At the advanced age of 21, long after most sires were retired, Northern Dancer's owners were offered $40 million to sell him. They turned it down.

Aside from Nijinsky II, Northern Dancer's list of championship offspring include The Minstrel, Sadlers's Wells, Secreto, El Gran Senor and Nureyev. They are among the 26 of his runners voted champions in their countries. Summer Squall, a grandson, was this spring's winner of the Preakness.

Each winter during Northern Dancer's years in stud, mares from famous European stables arrived at Windfields to mate with him.

In June, European bloodstock agents, working for Arab sheiks, British speculators and Greek shipping magnates, would line up at Windfields to inspect Northern Dancer's yearling foals.

In July, those offspring would often be the stars of the annual auction at the elite Keeneland Selected Yearling Sales in Lexington. A son, Snaafi Dancer, sold there for $10.2 million, the second-highest price ever paid for a thoroughbred. A grandson, Seattle Dancer (by Ninjisky II) sold for a world record $13.1 million.

For the last three years, Northern Dancer had been a healthy but impotent pensioner at Northview Stallion Station, the new name of Windfields Farm. When the farm was broken up and sold in 1988, a parcel of land was reserved as a retirement home for Northern Dancer to spare him the discomfort of a move to Canada. He was regally attended by a round-the-clock staff.

Northern Dancer was one of the few thoroughbreds for whom the applause did not end with his retirement from racing.

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