It was a spectacular life. No other description does justice to Northern Dancer's 29 years. The amount of money traded in his name, his brilliant record as a stallion long after he should have died, the little body that accompanied his big name -- you could write it all down and call it a true story, and only those who knew it was true would believe it.
Where to begin? He won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in 1964. He sired yearlings that sold for $160 million at the Keeneland sales alone, averaging almost $1 million per sale for more than two decades. He sired more stakes winners than any other stallion in history. He commanded a $1 million stud fee as late as age 26.
"He was the greatest commercial stallion ever," said Joe Hickey, who managed Windfields Farm in Chesapeake City, where Northern Dancer stood (the farm was sold in 1987) until he died yesterday morning after an attack of colic. "They'll be selling horses for a lot of years, but they'll never get the prices Northern Dancer did. His impact was felt worldwide."
This says it all: His blood was among the most valuable commodities in the world. People went absolutely crazy for it, spending the kind of money that could put a Van Gogh on the wall in their dining room, or a setting of royal china on their table. In 1983, a yearling he sired was sold for $10.2 million. The next year, one of his grandsons went for $13.1 million.
Part of it was luck; his prime coincided with an enormous, irrational jump in bloodstock prices. But people wanted quality, and a Northern Dancer yearling certainly was a good bet. Ironically, none of his sons or daughters won a Triple Crown race. Most of their successes came overseas. But the demand never waned. He was 28 when one of his sons sold for $2.8 million. (A horse dies, on the average, at 20.)
Of course, none of this was imaginable when he was a bay colt on E.P. Taylor's farm outside Toronto. It wasn't even imaginable when he won the Derby by a neck over Hill Rise, and the Preakness by 2 1/4 lengths over The Scoundrel. (He faded in the Belmont.) He was a gutty runner, but not the sleek sort one envisioned as a sire of classic champions.
"He was a little guy who beat the big boys," Hickey said. "Any horse of Northern Dancer's reputation, you always think of Secretariat, who cast such a heroic mold. But Northern Dancer was such a little pony, kind of a James Cagney, very cocky, very sure of himself, just a little street fighter who was an absolute ball of fire. People were always amazed when they saw him."
His first major success as a stallion was Nijinsky II, who won the English Triple Crown. Unlike Secretariat's sons and daughters, who came in all sizes and colors, Northern Dancer's shared a swayed back, dark coloring and an affinity for running on the turf. Nijinsky II and The Minstrel were just a couple of those who became exceptional stallions themselves. It is easy to see how Northern Dancer's blood became such a valued investment.
The bidding for it began to get crazy in the early '80s. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the defense minister of the kingdom of Dubai, began throwing around huge sums of oil money. The top European investors, among them England's Robert Sangster, joined forces to battle him. The record price for a yearling at Keeneland had been $1.7 million before 1981. It doubled that year, and Northern Dancer was the one making history.
"Two Northern Dancers sold for $3.3 million and $3.5 million within 20 minutes that night," Hickey said. "The people in the tent just went crazy. They were cheering each bid like a punch in a fight. When the bidding went over $2 million, everyone just stood up and roared. It was completely spontaneous, like a basketball game.
"I've been in a lot of sales rings before and after, and I've never quite seen the same amount of electricity and magnetism as there was that night. I was there when they sold for $10 million and $13 million, and it didn't create a ripple. That night in 1981, that was like going up and over the stratosphere, where no one thought you'd go."
Prices evened out in the mid-'80s, but Northern Dancer's yearlings continued to draw top dollar. And produce. In 1984, two of his sons battled neck-and-neck down the stretch of the Epsom Derby, the top race in England. So it went until Northern Dancer finally fell impotent three years ago. Windfields ultimately had to shut down.
"The amazing thing," Hickey said, "is that he was still commanding a million-dollar fee when he should have been in his grave five years. There used to be a prejudice against older stallions, but it never came up. I don't want to toot my own horn, but he was managed well. People worry about [a stallion] having over 100 services a year. He never had more than 46."
Two of Northern Dancer's 2-year-old sons are still running, and of course, even when they are done, his name will be found in racing forms around the world. "I have a picture in my den of 44 of his sons and grandsons, from England, Japan, South Africa, just about everywhere," Hickey said. "It is really quite a list. Quite a story."