Strands of wispy cloud seemed to beard the moon. Late night winds blew cool, a reminder that summer was still on its journey.
It was cool inside the barn, too, but not uncomfortably so. Still the mare, pacing slowly, began to sweat. It was the first sign that she was ready to foal. Stable help gathered for the vigil. Perhaps they were kept company by the sounds of music from a nearby radio. The most popular song of the day may have been playing on the radio. Del Shannon’s lament for lost love, Runaway, likely was on their lips, because almost everyone who had heard the tune sang along… “I wa.wa.wa.wa. wonder.”

Close to midnight and the mare went into labour. The mare was early and hadn’t been moved to the foaling stall in barn six at Windfields Farm. Her “due” date was still about a week away.

To the south, roughly three hundred miles as the crow flies, giant presses slowly rumbled to life in the womb of The New York Times. That day’s edition of America’s paper carried a story about the civil strife in the south and the words of Robert Kennedy, Attorney General of the United States, and brother to the most popular President in that country’s history, John F. Kennedy. “There is no question that in the next thirty to forty years, a negro can also achieve the same position as my brother, the President of the United States, certainly within that period of time.”

There would be no momentous proclamations or predictions for the future of the foal. A simple notation in the log: “Labour lasted 20 minutes. Walked, sweated for 1 _ hours. Tight but normal foaling. Bay colt, star and stripe into left nostril, left front (white) _ stocking, left hind, _ stocking and right hind ankle.”

Natalma had foaled at 12:15 a.m. The sire was Nearctic. It was May 27, 1961.

Standing Tall

The newborn colt was the last foal of the season. Natalma had been bred to Nearctic on a whim, almost. Natalma, a promising filly prospect, had been injured while being prepped for the Kentucky Oaks. She was shipped from the United States to Windfields, in Oshawa. Nearctic, a coal black son of Nearco and a Horse of the Year in Canada, was in his first season of stallion duty. It was very late in the breeding season but a mating was quickly arranged. If the mare didn’t “catch” she would be bred the following season.

The news of a colt foal would have delighted the master of Windfields, E.P. Taylor and his wife, Winnie. Taylor, like every breeder has done, probably afforded himself a moment of whimsy. Was this the colt that would stand above the rest?
Well, he wouldn’t literally stand above the rest, since he was the smallest in the paddock. He was behind his playmates in stature, but he could hold his own in any free-wheeling romps.

In the autumn of 1962, the Nearctic-Natalma colt, like all of the Windfields Farm colts and fillies, was evaluated and pre-priced and offered for sale at the annual Windfields Farm sale. The bay had become a favourite of Mrs. Taylor.

Several trainers and prospective owners looked at the colt, none more so than Carl Chapman. He loved the pedigree. Several times he had the yearling brought out for inspection. Finally Larkin Maloney, Chapman’s client, put an end to the speculation. He was not going to buy for the $25,000 reserve because the colt was too small. The Nearctic-Natalma colt remained a Windfields prospect. The Taylor and the management team were delighted. Horatio Luro, Natalma’s trainer, was given the strong-willed youngster to train.

He was named..Northern Dancer.

Off to the Races

Luro’s assistant, Tom (Peaches) Fleming was sent to Canada to oversee the development of Northern Dancer while Luro tended to his American stable and especially the big grey, Decidedly, who won the ’62 Derby for Luro and owner Edwin Pope, from California. With the Derby done, Luro had time to come to Canada to assess Northern Dancer, who had already established himself as the class of the two-year-old crop.

He had his hands full with a sometimes fiery temperament. Northern Dancer had often chased his trainer from the stall, teeth bared and hoofs flashing. Luro, reluctantly, had wanted to make the colt a gelding. The Taylors recoiled at the suggestion.

So, Luro soldiered on and Northern Dancer earned a two-year-old colt championship in Canada. As well, the stocky full-back of a horse won the late season Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct and the American horse public were watching. He had stamped himself as a Derby horse.

And, of course, we know he was. Northern Dancer won the Derby, the first Canadian-bred to do so, in record time (two minutes flat). He then won the Preakness Stakes and was being hailed as a Triple Crown champion.

That wasn’t to be. He struggled against the restraint of jockey Bill Hartack in the early going of the Belmont Stakes and, nearing the end of the mile and one-half classic, was spent. Still he finished third.

Northern Dancer’s loss in the Belmont didn’t tarnish his image. He was a Canadian hero. And he was back in Canada, at Woodbine, for the Queen’s Plate. Once again Northern Dancer fought the early restraint of his rider, Hartack, in the run down the stretch from the gate and into the first turn. Northern Dancer was fighting the bit, trying to run. Hartack said no. He threw his head in defiance and seemed to lose his action. The faithful were praying in the stands. Northern Dancer was last. Then he began to move. He was carried on a wave of adulation. No contest now.

It was Northern Dancer’s last race. A bowed tendon flared and the game little Canadianbred was sent to stud. Luro, like Hartack, had tried to harness Northern Dancer’s sometime defiant mood. Northern Dancer cooperated – to a degree. The fire that burned internally was about to burst forth.

The Legacy

From his first crop came the brilliant Viceregal, and he was followed by stakes-winner after stakes-winner. But the racing world really took notice of the muscular little Canadian-bred’s prowess as a stallion when Nijinsky II and his legendary jockey, Lester Piggott, began their pas de deux through the classic competition in England and Ireland. Nijinsky II won the Triple Crown, the first such winner since Bahram, in 1935. He was syndicated for a then world-record price at three and his future was set. He would stand at stud in the United States.

Thus a champion begets a champion, and another and another. Northern Dancer’s line was dominant and could be found in the winners of every major stakes race in the world.

Northern Dancer’s influence on the Plate didn’t begin until 1975, but from that date on, his offspring are responsible for 24 winners of the Canadian Classic, North America’s oldest continuously run stakes race. L’Enjoleur, a leggy son of Buckpasser, was out of owner J. Louis Levesque’s champion mare, Fanfreluche, who came within a half-length of Almoner to win in 1970. Fanfreluche was a daughter of Northern Dancer. The next year it was Col. Charles (Bud) Baker’s turn with another Buckpasser and daughter of Northern Dancer (Drama School) mating. Norcliffe, winner of the 117th running of the Plate, went on to become a Canadian Horse of the Year. It also marked the first Plate victory for trainer Roger Attfield. He has won an amazing seven others: Market Control (1987) With Approval (1989), Izvestia (1990), Alydeed (1992), Peteski (1993), Regal Discovery (1995), and Not Bourbon (2008).
Only Market Control did not have the influence of Northern Dancer in his pedigree. And, with the exception of Peteski, Regal Discovery and Not Bourbon, all were owned by Kinghaven Farms, owned by the late D.G. Willmot. Ironically, it was Northern Dancer’s victory in the Kentucky Derby which piqued the younger Willmot’s interest in thoroughbred racing. He sat, entranced, as Northern Dancer defied Hill Rise to pass during the run to the wire.

With Approval, out of Passing Mood, thus a daughter of Northern Dancer’s daughter Cool Mood; Izvestia, another grandson of Cool Mood; and Peteski, who was out of the Nureyev (a son of Northern Dancer) mare, Vive, all were Canadian Triple Crown winners. Sandwiched between Plate winners Alydeed (a son of Shadeed, who was a son of Nijinsky II) and Izvestia, was the brilliant filly Dance Smartly. Owned and bred by Sam-Son Farm, the daughter of Danzig, a son of Northern Dancer, out of Classy ‘n Smart, became the first filly Triple Crown winner in Canadian history. She then became the first Canadian-bred to win a Breeders’ Cup Championship when she won the filly and mare race at Churchill Downs. She was voted Canada’s Horse of the year and North America’s champion three-year-old filly.

So, 50 years after he first staggered on wobbly legs in his foaling stall at Windfields Farm, Natalma nudging him for support, Northern Dancer stands as a colossus. Sire of sires, sire of champions, the most important stallion in racing during our lifetime.

Still, I wonder.

What would have happened if Mr. Taylor had decided not to breed Natalma at the very end of the breeding season? If not bred then, would Natalma have been mated with Nearctic the following season? What would have occurred if another buyer had accepted the $25,000 terms of purchase at the pre-priced yearling sale? What if Luro had been granted his wish to geld?

I wonder.