CHESAPEAKE CITY -- He was just called "Dancer" or "the Dance" by the men who cared for him.
When the end came violently, and tragically, for the aging, arthritic, swaybacked stallion last Friday morning, it was these VTC men who were there to see that his life ended properly, and with dignity.
"There is a way to live, and there is a way to die," said Alan McCarthy, the sole veterinarian who attended to the needs of the legendary Northern Dancer for the last decade. "And I don't think the way for a great horse to die is by beating his head to death against a stable wall or thrashing about in a horse van."
McCarthy was the man who kept the feisty little horse healthy during the stallion's heyday in the early 1980s, when a single breeding season to him cost $1 million.
And McCarthy was the man who said he felt it was "my duty" to be the one at dawn last Friday to administer the lethal injection that put the most influential thoroughbred stallion of the 20th century to death.
"It got to the point where he was going to inflict damage to the people around him," McCarthy said about the horse, who was in such torturous abdominal pain from a suspected bout of colic that he was almost uncontrollable, even in the face of death.
"He was a difficult horse to work with, anyway," McCarthy said. "He just didn't want to be fooled with at any time. Even when he was down and I was trying to ease his pain, he'd turn around and try to bite me. It was very, very sad. But I'm confident we made the right decision."
Northern Dancer's last day of life started out quite ordinary. Retired from active stud duty three years ago, he was pensioned at Windfields Farm, even after the farm was sold and the stallion division was renamed Northview Stallion Station by its new owners. He had a lifelong right to live there, which was written into the deed of the property.
He spent the day in his paddock as usual and when brought in that night cleaned up his dinner. "I checked him at 7:30 p.m.," said Junior Clevenger, Northview's manager who had previously attended Northern Dancer in the Windfields era. "He was resting comfortably."
It was about 8:45 p.m. that the night watchman noticed the horse was showing signs of discomfort.
"He called me, and I immediately contacted the vet [McCarthy]," Clevenger said. "The vet was here within a half hour."
For the next 9 1/2 hours, all through that night and early morning, McCarthy, Clevenger, Clevenger's wife, Barbara, and the night watchman worked to save the animal's life.
Although normally healthy, especially for a horse of 29, Northern Dancer had a heart problem for the last five or six years, something McCarthy referred to as "aortic regurgitation." Also during the last two or three years, McCarthy noticed the horse was starting to show the symptoms of old age. "His back became more swayed, he lost his muscle tone, and his arthritis [in a bad knee] was flaring up," McCarthy said. No one was allowed to photograph the aging sire.
Even though McCarthy treated the horse for his abdominal pain that night, he is not entirely sure his distress was caused solely by colic. "I talked to veterinarians at the New Bolton Center [the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary Clinic in Kennett Square] and they said that in many old horses there is some strangulation of the small intestine caused by fatty tissue. But we don't know for sure what caused Northern Dancer's problem, and we wouldn't know unless we opened him up."
Because of his age, McCarthy felt the horse couldn't endure the van trip for an abdominal operation at New Bolton or the ordeal of the operation itself. After his death Windfields management did not request an autopsy.
"I called Windfields' manager, Ric Waldman, in Kentucky, and he is the one who OK'd putting him down," McCarthy said.
"I gave him the injection, with a great deal of anxiety I might add, then covered him up and left."
As far back as five years ago, the Windfields management team already had prepared for the horse's funeral.
They had a carpenter build an oak coffin. "It's about the size of a half of a pickup truck and weighs almost as much as the horse," said former Windfields executive Joe Hickey.
Northern Dancer was loaded in the coffin, was wrapped in a blanket he had won during his racing career, and the remains were shipped in a refrigerated truck for burial in Canada. "He died at 6:15 a.m. His body was loaded and shipped out by 7:30 a.m., and he was in Canada by 9 p.m. They dug his grave while he was in transit," Clevenger said. "Because of health requirements from crossing from the U.S. border into Canada, it all had to be done within 24 hours, and it was."
Northern Dancer is buried at the main Windfields Farm in Oshawa, Ontario, where he was born. His sire, Nearctic, who died of laminitis at age 18, is buried at Woodstock Farm in Chesapeake City, and his dam, Natalma, who died of colic at age 27, is buried at Windfields in Maryland.
"He was a champion racehorse, a champion sire, a sire of sires, his yearlings sold for the highest prices in horse racing history. He accomplished everything a man could expect a horse to accomplish," McCarthy said. "I feel working with him is the highlight of my career. I think all of us that worked with this horse felt we were honored to be associated with him."