Northern Dancer, who died yesterday at 29, has been hailed as the greatest progenitor in thoroughbred history. Through three generations and counting, his offspring have been named champions in the United States, Canada and, most significantly, Europe.
Although he never sired a winner of an American Triple Crown race, his grandsons and great-grandsons have accounted for all three: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. He was leading sire in North America in 1971, but soon thereafter, Europeans began to buy virtually all his high-priced offspring at American auctions, and his sphere of influence was transferred overseas.
The success of Nijinsky II, who was the first English Triple Crown winner in 34 years when he won it in 1970, was the springboard that would lead to that European influence. Charles Englehard, owner of Nijinsky II, was first in a line of wealthy Europeans who were convinced that Northern Dancer would become the world's greatest sire. Englehard was followed by Stavros Niarchos, Robert Sangster and the Maktoum brothers of the kingdom of Dubai.
Overall, his sons and daughters were not nearly as successful in the United States as in Europe. Herat, his all-time leading North American-based earner ($771,415), is seldom mentioned in the same breath with sons who gained great acclaim in Europe, such as Nijinsky II, The Minstrel, El Gran Senor and Secreto.
"He did not have nearly as much of an impact in America as in Europe," said David Heckerman, bloodlines expert and senior editor of Thoroughbred Times magazine, in Lexington, Ky. "Some people might say his foals didn't distinguish themselves in the top American dirt races, but I don't interpret it that way.
"The reason his foals weren't so much in evidence here is simply that the good ones weren't here. By the mid-'70s, more than half of his commercially bred offspring were being bought by Europeans or people who raced horses there. That trend has continued with his best sons."
Northern Dancer's first crop, foaled in 1966, numbered 22. Of those, 10 would win stakes -- mostly on dirt surfaces -- although most came against inferior company in Canada.
He quickly earned a reputation as a great turf sire; that added to his shift of influence toward Europe, where racing is conducted only on turf. Perhaps as a side effect, only a handful of his sons ran in the American classics -- Giboulee, his first Kentucky Derby starter, was a 1977 also-ran.
However, his turf-only reputation largely has been erased by the success of his second-, third- and even fourth-generation horses in American racing.
The statistics, and the potential of the horses that survive him -- both here and in Europe -- are overwhelming.
From his sons and daughters: 143 stakes winners and more than $20 million in earnings. From succeeding generations: Incalculable.
Two examples of his American legacy: Chief's Crown, a grandson, won the first Breeders' Cup race, the 1984 Juvenile at Hollywood Park. Bet Twice, a great-grandson, romped to a 14-length victory in the 1987 Belmont Stakes.
They are just two horses on a very long list of major American winners with Northern Dancer bloodlines.