There is much to be said for pausing and considering how much the sport and the breed owes to the great sire Northern Dancer (by Nearctic).
The great little bay, who stood 15.1 hands when he was feeling especially perky, was foaled 60 years ago, on May 27, 1961, and he overcame every barrier placed before him by nature or man.
Northern Dancer, it was said, was too small a yearling to be much good; he was a May foal and would need a lot of time to be any good; he was too small to be a classic horse; he did not have the pedigree to race effectively at 10 furlongs; he was too small to make a stallion; he was foaled in the wrong country; he was by an unimportant sire; he was standing in the wrong place to have a chance to succeed at stud.
With a toss of his dramatically striped head and a flourish of his thick, black tail, Northern Dancer proved all those comments wrong. Every one.
A winner in 14 of his 18 starts, Northern Dancer had a first-rate race record, but there have been horses with even more exemplary records who were, shall we say, less successful at stud. To the contrary, Northern Dancer was even more successful, even more influential, and even more pervasive as an influence at stud.
The greatest of the good sons by Nearctic, Northern Dancer was too big to stay in Canada; mares needed access to the horse, and owner-breeder E.P. Taylor obliged by developing Windfields Farm in Maryland, which became for a time the most important breeding operation in the world due to one stallion.
The demand for the offspring of Northern Dancer had to be seen to be believed, and in the sultry weather of the July select yearling sales in Kentucky especially, the money that his stock would bring in the heady days of the 1980s bloodstock boom would make anyone swoon.
And, if a single offspring of Northern Dancer would be chosen as the wellspring of the sire’s reputation and the early star of his importance to the breed, that colt would be Nijinsky.
A big, stretchy bay rather unlike his sire, Nijinsky sold as a select yearling at the Ontario yearling sale in 1968. He was from his sire’s second crop and was yet an excellent representative of the Northern Dancer type in body mass and racing enthusiasm.
Trained by Vincent O’Brien and racing for Charles Engelhard, Nijinsky won his first 11 races, including the only English Triple Crown from Bahram’s in 1935 to the present. That the dashing, grand colt lost his last two races was unfortunate, but it wasn’t the end of the world. Nijinsky retired, as planned, to stud at Claiborne Farm and became Northern Dancer’s first great son at stud.
Many others followed, and that in itself is the greatest anomaly in all the exceptions to the norm that Northern Dancer flouted.
Even very good sires rarely get more than one really good son to carry on their male-line, but Northern Dancer had at least a half-dozen very high-class sons. In addition to Nijinsky, Northern Dancer’s important sons included Sadler’s Wells, Lyphard, Nureyev, The Minstrel, Vice Regent, Northern Taste, Storm Bird, and Danzig. If any of those are objectionable, there are others to fill their spot, such as Dixieland Band, El Gran Senor, Try My Best, Northfields, and Northern Baby.
Son after son sired a champion, a classic winner, or winners at the premium level in racing around the world.
Yet for all that transformative genetic energy, only a handful of those sons have bred on to the present, as the breed has regressed to the norm of typically only one or no successful sire to carry on for a very important stallion.
Of all the Northern Dancer sons, those male lines today that stand strongest are through Sadler’s Wells (especially Galileo), Storm Bird (the Storm Cat crowd, especially Into Mischief today), and Danzig.
The latter is the male-line source through Green Desert for Helvic Dream (Power), winner of the Group 1 Tattersalls Gold Cup at the Curragh over the weekend. Danzig is also source of the broodmare sire line through Danehill, and there are four other Northern Dancer lines in the pedigree of Helvic Dream. Lyphard through the great racer Dancing Brave and Lomond through his G2-winning daughter Inchmurrin do their part, and Nijinsky is twice in the pedigree, first through his son Green Dancer and then through the third dam of Helvic Dream, the winning Cascassi, who is a half-sister to Diminuendo (Diesis), winner of the English, Irish, and Yorkshire Oaks, all G1.
From the perspective of history, the more Northern Dancer we find in a pedigree, the better. Genetically, he’s as close as we’ve come in breeding to something that’s “all good.”
So on this May 27, take moment. Heave a sigh. Think of past glories and the little bay horse who could.