For starters, it was a new record. It was the first time any one trainer and any one group of owners would find themselves hailing a first, second and a third. John Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derek Smith, together with their genius trainer, Aidan O’Brien, were toasting not only Found, Highland Reel and Order Of St George in that order, but they were also celebrating an historic trifecta for Northern Dancer’s grandson, Galileo, the flagship stallion at Magnier’s Coolmore Stud in Ireland. When his father Sadler’s Wells finally passed on, nobody believed any other stallion would come close to emulating his record of 14 championships. But then, nobody had ever reckoned on an equine Galileo, nor had they counted on a human version of John Magnier. While it is true that racing has taken John Magnier where no other man has been, it’s equally true that Magnier has taken the sport to heights it’s never scaled before.
In another moment of triumph, this time for South Africa, on the Saturday card of the self-same Arc meeting, The Juliet Rose sailed home for Markus Jooste in the prestigious Prix de Royallieu (Gr.2), creating her own bit of local history as the first South African-owned horse to succeed at Europe’s premier racing festival. A daughter of the German genetic giant, Monsun, The Juliet Rose is a natural mate for the world’s best stallion, Galileo, and given his personal relationship with Magnier, its odds-on our man will be routing his filly that way when her career at the races is done.
That’s not the end of the weekend’s victories however, as it was Graduation day at Summerhill on Friday for the sixth intake of students at The School of Management Excellence. Top student and recipient of the Bryan and Erica Goss Memorial Trophy was Mark Naidoo, who will be winging his way to the Farish family’s Lane’s End Farm in Kentucky as part of his prize courtesy of Judy Stuart’s Future Farmers Programme. The task of filling the substantial shoes of Thabani Nzimande, John Motaung, Ashlee Hammond and Eric Motlau as the outstanding students at the English National Stud in four of the past five years, falls on the shoulders of Catherine Zollner and Beauty Ndlovu, both beneficiaries of the Childwick Trust’s ongoing support of the school.
I now want to turn our attention to one of the epic triumphs of the breeding world and the chance dinner I enjoyed in the company of one Edward Plunkett Taylor, otherwise known as “E.P." Taylor, and even better known as the breeder of the thoroughbred colossus, Northern Dancer; you might recall an earlier posting on the circumstances that gave rise to this serendipitous meeting.
The countless stories of Northern Dancer have long since passed into the folklore fabric of the world’s breeding nations, so I will endeavour to tell mine from as different a perspective as I can, sharing with you the anecdotes I’ve gleaned over the years from my interactions with “E.P”. himself, his son Charles, his renowned stud man Joe Thomas, Mrs. Allaire du Pont and the work of former editor of America’s Blood-Horse magazine, the inimitable Ed Bowen.
In early 2000, the Japan-based international publication, Futurity, published its annual resume of the world’s top racehorses. The survey embraced North America, England, Ireland, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, Australia, Hong Kong and Dubai, and found that of the 146 champions and/or Group One winners of 1999, 65 descended from the Northern Dancer tribe, while 114 had the great stallion somewhere in their pedigrees. Which means that nearly four decades after he was foaled in what was then regarded as a secondary breeding land, Canadian-bred Northern Dancer already appeared in the pedigrees of 78% of a contemporary group of distinguished runners around the world. While I’ve not refreshed these statistics for the purposes of this piece, I’m told the number is now in excess of 85%. How a chunky little Canadian bay with splashy white markings came to have such an influence, is perhaps the signature tale of international racing and breeding in the first semester of the 21st century. As you might expect, great horses, great horsemen and that essential ingredient of luck, all had their roles to play.
As luck would have it, his father, the young stallion Nearctic, resulted from an impressive rise in fortunes, both in business and the turf for E.P. Taylor, a native son of Ottawa, Ontario. Son of a military man, he was born in 1901 and was of a time, place and acumen to launch into a burgeoning career after World War 1. Noticing the fragmentation of the brewing industry, he began borrowing ala-Steinhoff to buy up small companies and consolidate them. Profitability followed, and thus was born Carling Breweries, as we know it. Some years later, he unfolded a similar pattern on Ontario racing, so that Woodbine, one of the top racetracks in North America, was born in the 1950s. The outcome was that where many little businesses had struggled, a few large ones would flourish. Taylor’s liking of horse racing, accompanied by sufficient wherewithal, led to the formation of his racing stable in 1936, and later the acquisition of what was to become Windfields Farm.
In Taylor’s mind and heart was conceived the conviction that high-class international thoroughbreds could be raised here, and as this notion grew, so did his efforts to prove it correct. The age-old image of Canada, shined by Hollywood, was of a frozen climate with Mounties on horseback. Well, the horseback part was alright with Taylor, and no question the winters are formidable, but horses are highly adaptable, and anyway, the summers are warm and the autumn’s lovely in and around Toronto. By 1952, Taylor was playing in the top levels of breeding and racing in North America: he’d been one of a small group to join Bull Hancock in the purchase of Nasrullah for Kentucky. Purse levels in Canada did not justify any bloodstock of that ilk, but Taylor had an extraordinary knack for taking inexpensive animals and breeding upwards from them. By 1952 though, he was not dealing only in inexpensive stock; he told his friend and bloodstock agent, George Blackwell, to buy him the best mare in the Newmarket December Sale in England.
Blackwell, who once described Taylor as “the most dynamic man I ever knew”, made a career of spotting bargains at sales. Turning him loose with top dollar though, he could get results too. The 1952 Newmarket Sale was held in an atmosphere of massive international raiding. The gross for the sale dropped to the lowest since the war year of 1943, and English and Irish breeders seemed uneasy at, or unable to replenish their broodmare bands.
The British Bloodstock Agency, who were pivotal in Summerhill’s quest at internationalising its stock at a later stage in our lives, accounted for more than 1/5 of the aggregate prices, largely for export. The leading buyer was the Frenchman, Maurice de Rothschild, together with groups as far afield as Peru and Australia.
It fell though, to the Canadian Taylor to pay top dollar of 10,500 guineas, to Martin Benson’s Beech House Stud for Lady Angela. The mare was a daughter of the great Hyperion and was in foal to Beech House’s grand stallion, Nearco. Taylor left the mare in England to foal, conditional upon his ability to return her to Nearco (sire of Nasrullah, of course). Benson, a book-maker by trade, saw opportunity beckoning and made the season available, provided dollars were sent to pay for it. The first foal was the English-bred Empire Day, a colt that would not have encouraged the thought that he would one day be connected to the ultra-masculine business of widespread sirelines. He was a light-boned, weak chestnut, and he turned out something of a disappointment at stud. Not so the next Nearco/Lady Angela colt, the Canadian-bred named Nearctic. A competent two-year-old winner of one of Saratoga’s banner juvenile events, the Saratoga Special, he went on to become a decent Stakes winner on both sides of the border, and while no match for the likes of his American contemporary Bold Ruler, he was named Horse Of The Year in Canada.
At one point, the Argentinean-born trainer Horatio Luro, was asked to try and solve Neartic’s speed-crazy tendencies. Luro turned to the French jockey Rae Johnstone, who was visiting America between European racing seasons and the winter. Luro had prescribed long, slow gallops, which his regular exercise rider had been unable to impose on Nearctic. Johnstone did. Improvement came with finesse, for the rider known as Le Crocodil was willing to spend as much as an hour in the mornings hacking Nearctic to settle him. It was not the last time the Luro touch would be a positive influence upon the House of Nearctic.
On his retirement, Nearctic went to stud at Windfields with a record of 21 wins from 46 starts. His first book of mares included the classy Natalma, daughter of the great Native Dancer. Taylor had purchased her for $35,000 from the one Daniel G. Van Clief, whose son “D.G” was another that influenced my personal thoughts on the sport of racing when he was CEO of Breeders Cup Inc. Natalma was a daughter of Almahmoud (also dam of Cosmah, and thus granddam of the distinguished stallion, Halo, sire among many outstanding racehorses, of the breed-shaper Sunday Silence).
In training, Natalma needed the same morning “gentling” as her future mate, Nearctic, had required. Among her high-class performances, she was the disqualified winner of the Spinaway Stakes (now Group One); sadly a breakdown in her early sophomore mission to the Kentucky Oaks rendered her “retired,” which saw her included in the first book of the strongly built Nearctic.
Her first foal was born late the following spring, on May 27th 1961. Call him a late foal, call him small, but call him Northern Dancer. In his efforts to boost the sport in Ontario, Taylor had by far the biggest breeding and racing operation, but he knew it needed other stables to make it a healthy circuit. His idea was to market some of his horses to defray expenses, help fill cards and Stakes schedules on Ontario tracks, and still leave his own racing stable with a plentiful supply of incoming prospects. The formula was a pre-priced yearling sale at Windfields, a picturesque drive out of Toronto to the town of Oshawa. Potential buyers, many of them Montreal and Toronto businessmen, were invited to cocktails and to inspect the farm’s entire produce in yearlings, each of which had an announced, set price. Once the buyers had collectively signed up to procure half the crop, the sale was ended, so no-one could say Taylor was selling only his culls, no-one could say they were being “bid-up”, yet it also meant Taylor did not have to ravage his own resources.
Despite a physical stature that could almost invite the description “runt”, Northern Dancer was impressive enough in his physical development, his powerful quarters and his manner, that he was highly priced for a Canadian-bred yearling at the time. At $25 000, he was clearly a colt Taylor was not willing to part with unless someone was willing to pay the price. No-one did, most of them finding his size a major deterrent.
Both Luro and Blackwell recalled trying to interest Morris Fleming in the sturdy little colt, whose conformation they admired despite his lack of height. Luro, with a healthy respect for both the sire and dam, both of whom he trained, was especially tough to dissuade by size. Fleming, however, was unmoved, with the thought that if he was going to spend a lot of money on one yearling, it would be good to have some “salvage” if things went awry. Instead, he opted for a filly who, named Muskoka, was to chase Northern Dancer futilely in their early outings the following summer.
Taylor sold a great many major Stakes winners in his lifetime, notably Nijinsky, The Minstrel, El Gran Senor, Try My Best, Storm Bird and of course, the future bulwark of our own lives, Northern Guest, but he was fortunate enough to offer, but not sell, Northern Dancer, just as he had with Nearctic. The muscular, blocky little colt, was three-for-three at two for trainer “Peaches” Fleming, but was then turned over to the “Grand Senor” Luro, (for whom Northern Guest’s brother, “El Gran Senor” was named) for his three-year-old campaign. As Luro recounted in his life story, he cut short his annual French visit during the hay-fever season to return to Canada, with Northern Dancer the principal reason. Whether this version unduly stresses the Senor’s prescience or not, Northern Dancer had a month off, and in the wake of it was beaten by a 90-1 shot in his opening race for his new trainer. From then on, it was “pay-pay” for as long as he was campaigning in Canada, whereupon he was sent to New York for two more races towards the end of November. It was later recalled by Luro that after his last race in the mud in Canada, he noticed the beginnings of a quarter crack on the right hind hoof, and was fitted with a bar shoe. Both his American starts ended in victory, the first with an 8 length defeat of the Futurity hero, Bupers, and the second in the prestigious Remsen.
The responsibility of assigning the ratings to the best horses of each age division was Tommy Trotter’s, and he put a top Juvenile weight of 126 pounds on Raise A Native, who’d retired unbeaten in 5 starts without ever running as far as six furlongs; Northern Dancer was hardly ignored however, as the sixth-ranked on 123 pounds.
In hindsight, it is difficult to reconcile the decision to carry on with his New York juvenile campaign once the problems with Northern Dancer’s hoof had been discerned, one possibility being that Taylor and Luro had harboured such doubts about the colt’s ultimate potential that maximising what he could accomplish at two, became the overriding strategy. The other possibility, of course, was either that Taylor was not even aware of the quarter crack (a split in the hoof), or that Luro had been dealing with it successfully as part of his job. By the end of the campaign though, a decision had to be made. Joe Thomas, Taylor’s breeding and racing manager, took a conservative view and Luro had no ready response to the suggestion that time, and only time, was the solution. A van was ordered: Northern Dancer would go back to Toronto, and one presumes, to the jewel of Toronto, the Queen’s Plate, for a colt who might otherwise have had the Kentucky Derby in his sights. Meanwhile though, Luro had heard vague stories about the condition’s treatment with vulcanised patches, though he also believed in the time-honoured solution of giving the hoof time to grow out, like a fingernail. Just then Luro read of blacksmith Bill Baine’s success in treating quarter cracks with one of these patches and put the proposition to Taylor. The van to Toronto was cancelled. Baine was flown to New York and with an acetylene torch, placed the patch on Northern Dancer’s foot; the famous outcome of this treatment would one day proclaim this piece of rubber the “Baine Patch”. Baine assured the trainer he could return to normal practice after a week of walking, that the hoof would grow out and the patch would eventually be sloughed off without special maintenance.
Given the later career of Northern Dancer and the status of Canadian racing at the time, we come to the irresistible contemplation of the Baine patch and Luro’s cutting-edge determination, on breeding history. Without the treatment, Northern Dancer might’ve rampaged through his Canadian division the next summer. He might also have been good enough for Taylor to send him back to New York, where in the best Autumn races he would’ve faced older horses Gun Bow and Kelso. The questions that accrue are searching: would any campaign besides that of the American classics been glamorous enough, even in its winning, to have a shedrow of yearlings accepted for the select summer sales in his first crop? Would his prestige have been such as to prompt Taylor to alter his Windfields marketing programme in the Woodbine sale at announced reserves? Without that change, would Vincent O’Brien have travelled to Toronto in the summer of 1968, where he spotted a Northern Dancer colt to be named Nijinsky? Without Nijinsky, how would the worldwide reputation of Northern Dancer have been altered? For that matter, if events had turned out differently, would Northern Dancer have ever been the only stallion to command a $1 million stud fee? Well, the Baine treatment was applied, and Northern Dancer did have the opportunity to run in the most glamorous of races.
While the rest is history, it’s also a compelling story, and it’s one worth repeating. I’m afraid though, if you’re enjoying our narrative, we’ll have to give way for a day or two, if we’re to have any luck on Thursday with the judging of next year’s yearling sales crop. Herewith endeth the lesson!