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Book Review

The Kingmaker: How Northern Dancer Founded a Racing Dynasty By Avalyn Hunter
Eclipse Press, April 2006, 256 pages hardcover

Without a doubt, no horse has had as significant an impact on the Thoroughbred breeding industry as Northern Dancer. The diminutive Canadian-bred colt was put up for sale as a yearling for a bargain price by breeder E.P. Taylor, an industrialist trying to develop the racing industry in his native land. The colt by Nearctic out of Natalma went unsold, so Taylor decided to race him under his colors. In her latest book, The Kingmaker, Blood-Horse magazine's pedigree and breeding industry expert Avalyn Hunter tells us about the little horse that appears in the pedigrees of some 90% of today's Thoroughbreds, and how this came to be.

Hunter begins her story in England in the 1700's during the breed's infancy. Going through this period of racing history, she traces the ancestry of Northern Dancer, showing the reader how some of the best bloodlines converged to produce this superstallion. The reader learns about some of the important stallions in history, including Herod, St. Simon, Domino, Phalaris, Hyperion, and Native Dancer. Clearly, Thoroughbred breeding is survival of the fittest, and these sires' influence continues to this day through Northern Dancer and others. He was the offspring of two highly regarded racers in the Taylor stable, the colt Nearctic and the filly Natalma and an entire chapter is dedicated to their racing careers. Each was a multiple stakes winner in both the U.S. and Canada. Nearctic was injury-prone and seemed never to get enough time off the track to fully recover before being rushed back to the races, but he did race through his 5-year-old season. Natalma was a promising juvenile whose career was cut short by a bone chip, denying her a chance to run in the Kentucky Oaks. Immediately following her retirement she was rushed to the court of Nearctic and given one chance to conceive, which she did. In retrospect, perhaps Thoroughbreds' soundness issues could be traced to the fact that the breed's greatest sire was the product of two unsound horses.

Although Northern Dancer is best known as a potent sire, he was no slouch on the racetrack and Hunter spends the middle four chapters on his racing career. As a juvenile he was ridden by Ron Turcotte, but when he was sent to America to prepare for a run at the Triple Crown, Turcotte was dropped in favor of New York riders. This frustrated the young jockey, prompting him to move his tack to New York in order to prove himself worthy of riding top horses like Northern Dancer. He more than fulfilled this as the regular rider of Triple Crown winner Secretariat. Under trainer Horatio Luro, Northern Dancer rattled off stakes wins including the Remsen, Flamingo, Florida Derby, and Blue Grass. But it was his upset over Hill Rise in the 1964 Kentucky Derby that highlighted his career and put Canadian racing and breeding on the map. He completed the 1 1/4 miles in a track record of 2 minutes flat, a record that went unbroken until Secretariat. After winning the Preakness and then finishing a disappointing fourth in the Belmont, he returned home to Canada to a hero's welcome and easily captured the Queen's Plate at Woodbine. However, an injury discovered during a workout prompted an early retirement.

To say that his offspring hit the ground running would be an understatement, as 14% of his named foals won stakes races at 2, including Canadian Horse of the Year and champion juvenile Viceregal. However, it was his colt out of Flaming Page in his second crop that made the world take notice. Nijinsky was sold for just $84,000 and sent to Irish trainer Vincent O'Brien. Despite not being bred for long distances, he became the first horse in 35 years to sweep the English Triple Crown, a feat unmatched since. With his success, Northern Dancer offspring gradually pushed auction prices into the stratosphere. Not only did he produce great runners, but great stallions and broodmares as well. Over the last 4 chapters, Hunter talks about the many stakes winners produced by or out of his progeny. These chapters read like a who's who of recent racing history, with a mind-boggling list of horse names and stakes races spanning the globe. Clearly, Northern Dancer's influence on the breed will not diminish for many years to come. A useful appendix is included, listing his own stakes winners, stakes wins as a broodmare sire, and stakes winners as a sire of sires. It is this list that truly marks Northern Dancer as the "kingmaker", as his sons became kings at stud in their own right.

This book is a very fitting tribute to the breed's greatest sire and the pride of Canadian racing and breeding. Followers of Thoroughbred breeding and pedigrees will appreciate the encyclopedic lists provided by Hunter, while racing history aficionados will enjoy reading about the exploits of Northern Dancer on the track over his two racing seasons, including a run at the Triple Crown. This is an excellent addition to every racing fan's personal library, as it is an exciting story to read and an invaluable reference tool to be referred to over time.

The Kingmaker has a list price of $24.95 and is available from Exclusively Equine for $19.95 which includes shipping or Amazon.com for $16.98.

Rating:     5/5

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