Commentary

Canada's horse remembered

Northern Dancer was more than a Kentucky Derby winner

Updated: April 29, 2014, 2:39 AM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

Author Kevin Chong set out to write a book about the 1964 Kentucky Derby winner, a smallish horse no one wanted but went on to win America's favorite horse race 50 years ago. He winds up delivering far more as "Northern Dancer, The Legendary Horse That Inspired a Nation" is as much about the psyche of an entire county as it is a horse.

Chong was born in Hong Kong but raised in Vancouver, so he knows something about a country that 50 years ago needed an identity and a hero and found one in Canadian-bred-and-owned Northern Dancer.

Canada and Canadians had an inferiority complex, especially when it came to its big, bad, brash neighbor to the south. Northern Dancer made them more proud than they could have imagined.

"It was also a time before the maple leaf appeared on Canada's flag, before 'O Canada' became the official national anthem," he writes. "Canadians were more accustomed to coming in second. They were more resigned to being smaller than the other guy, to leading quieter, less dazzling lives than their southern counterparts. But that began to change with Northern Dancer. For him, we knew that the best Canadian could beat the best Americans.

"By dint of his resolve and power, the stocky colt compelled an entire country to fall in love with him. Canadians projected themselves onto a horse who refused to accept the slights leveled against him. They claimed his victories as their own. In his blazing strides, some began to see their own country's potential greatness, an entity unhitched from its historical and economic ties."

Northern Dancer was bred by Canadian industrialist E.P. Taylor. Taylor would auction his yearlings at his own sale, bringing buyers to his Winfield Farms to inspect. Taylor thought Northern Dancer had potential, so he put a reserve price on him of $25,000. But Northern Dancer's size turned buyers off, and no one would pay that price for a horse that would go on to be the most valuable thoroughbred in the world. According to Chong, one trainer said, "Who wants to buy a midget?" Taylor would go on to race the unwanted horse.

After a solid age-2 year in which he won three stakes in Canada and the Remsen at Aqueduct, he blossomed under the care of Hall of Fame trainer Horatio Luro as a 3-year-old. But after he won the Florida Derby, Northern Dancer was slighted again, as jockey Bill Shoemaker decided to take off to ride the California-bred Hill Rise.

New rider Bill Hartack rode him to victory in the Blue Grass and then outlasted Shoemaker and Hill Rise to win the 1964 Derby by a neck. The little Canadian had beaten the best America had to offer in America's greatest race.

The mayor of Toronto would award him the key to the city, Northern Dancer billboards went up all over Toronto and he was voted Athlete of the Year, topping notable candidates such as Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe.

The Canadian media fed the beast; it had found a hero who lifted the mood of an entire nation.

"[The media] cast the colt into a Canadian figure, a four-legged warrior fighting valiantly against American tyranny," Chong wrote.

Northern Dancer won the Preakness by 2 ¼ lengths, this time over The Scoundrel as Hill Rise finished third. He was not favored in either the Derby or Preakness, but the gamblers stopped trying to beat him in the Belmont, sending him to the post at 4-5. That turned out to be a mistake, as he finished a distant third, likely coming up short because the mile-and-a-half distance was outside his comfort zone.

After the Belmont he returned home to Woodbine to prepare for Canada's greatest race, the Queen's Plate. Mayor Philip Givens asked if he could throw a ticker-tape parade for the colt, but Taylor and Luro declined, not wanting to take the chance that the hubbub would rattle the colt before such an important race.

In what would turn out to be his final start before his career ended due to injury, Northern Dancer returned home to win the Queen's Plate at Woodbine by 7 ½ lengths.

As good a race horse as he was, Northern Dancer was even better as a stallion, his stud fee eventually rising to an astronomical $1 million.

Another Canadian-bred, Sunny's Halo, won the Kentucky Derby in 1983, but he wasn't half the horse Northern Dancer was, and his impact on Canadian society was mild at best.

Fifty years later, Northern Dancer, who died in 1990, is still beloved in his native country. There is a statue of him at Woodbine, and Canadians who were there to witness his Triple Crown run speak of him in tones of reverence that Americans reserve for Secretariat. Some might long for another Northern Dancer, a horse that can not only win the Kentucky Derby, but bring joy to an entire nation. That's not going to happen. Times have changed, racing has really changed and surely there will never be another one like him.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com

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