The date was May 2, 1964. Only a few months earlier the Beatles had topped the U.S. pop charts for the first time with “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and in the world of thoroughbred horse racing; a gutsy little bay colt from our neighbor to the north would become the first Canadian bred horse ever to win the Kentucky Derby. Despite being a winner of seven stakes races, and arriving to Louisville on a five race winning streak, including the Flamingo, Florida Derby, and Blue Grass, Northern Dancer struggled to earn the respect of the majority of racing fans before the Triple Crown. The Kentucky Derby of 1964 would go a long way in changing that.
With an impressive win in Aqueduct’s Remsen Stakes to close his juvenile season, the son of Nearctic, out of the Native Dancer mare, Natalma, had proven that he could compete with strong American competition. Trained by Horatio Luro for owner/breeder E.P. Taylor of Windfields Farm, Northern Dancer had finished first seven times with two places from nine starts as a two-year-old, mostly in Canada. It was clear that he was the cream of the Canadian crop, but questions whether or not the colt, who stood just a shade over 15 hands, could handle America’s best at classic distances.
So it went for much of the spring for Northern Dancer. After losing a six furlong sprint due to a bad trip in his sophomore debut at Hialeah, the boxy colt reeled off three impressive wins in Florida, including the Flamingo under Bill Shoemaker, in which the Dancer blistered nine furlongs in 1:47 and change. Any thoughts that the Canadian would be favored in the Derby ended though, when he “only” won the Florida Derby by a length, and the Blue Grass by less than that. Neither race was particularly fast, and after the Florida Derby, Shoemaker made the call to commit to the Derby on Hill Rise. The tall, dark and handsome colt was in a lot of ways the antithesis of Northern Dancer. People saw him as the type of horse that wins the Derby, and so as he tore through the Derby Trail in California, Shoemaker chose to ride him over the little colt with stamina questions.
Luro decided to give the mount to Bill Hartack, who had already won the Derby on three occasions. Meanwhile, Hill Rise got his local Derby prep in with an impressive win in the Forerunner purse. A few days later Northern Dancer won the Blue Grass decidedly unimpressive, but Luro and Hartack wanted the race to be a test to see if the speedy colt could be relaxed early in preparation for the ten furlongs of the Kentucky Derby. Mission accomplished. A field of 12 would enter the Kentucky Derby ten days later with Hill Rise the odds-on favorite and Northern Dancer the slightly disrespected second choice at 3.4-1.
No one knew for sure whether Northern Dancer would stay the trip, but Bill Hartack made sure to give him every chance. Sitting further behind than he had ever been before the two bided their time off a fast pace set by Mr. Brick. As the leader hit the six furlongs marker in 1:10, the second choice made his move. While Hill Rise ranged up on his outside, Northern Dancer made a sudden burst to go after the lead. As the Kentucky Derby field came out of the turn for home, Northern Dancer had taken the lead and was in a full on drive down the Churchill Downs stretch. Hill Rise, who had been a little slower to accelerate on the turn, was now making big strides on the outside.
It looked like the heavy favorite might reel in the plucky little colt, but Hartack and his mount were giving it everything they had. The lead was ever dwindling, but Northern Dancer would simply not give up. Showing a heart bigger than his size would suggest, the Dancer held off Hill Rise by a neck. The final time for the 1 ¼ miles was two minutes flat, setting a Derby record that would stand until Secretariat came along. Both colts had run a great race, but Northern Dancer had just been a little better.
Hill Rise would go on to have a great career, winning many more stakes races in California, New York and England before his retirement a few years later. Northern Dancer would only have three more races after his big win under the Twin Spires. A strong win in the Preakness was followed by a respectable third in the Belmont. Finally a return to Canada for a tour-de-force romp in their biggest race, the Queens’ Plate, confirmed his place as a national hero. Unfortunately an injury would keep from ever racing again.
I say unfortunately, but we all know what he would go on to do at stud. Simply said, Northern Dancer became the finest stallion we have seen in the last hundred years. As great a sire as he was, it should never be forgotten what the little horse from Canada was able to accomplish on the track, and in particular, a magical two minutes on the first Saturday of May.