Book of the Week: Northern Dancer: The Legend and his Legacy By Muriel Lennox Mainstream Publishing pounds 15.99

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The Independent Online
FOR THE first and only time, Canada's Athlete of the Year in 1964 was not human. It was a racehorse called Northern Dancer who had the country honking horns and dancing in the streets on 2 May. The cause of the celebrations was that "the Dancer" had gone down to Churchill Downs and snatched the Kentucky Derby in record-breaking time from under the noses of the sneering Americans, who refused to believe a champion could emerge from anywhere other than the blue-grass state. Little did they know that Northern Dancer's victory was just the beginning of a story that would establish the greatest dynasty the sport has known.

Northern Dancer was born to be a winner. One of his great grand-sires was the quirky, pony-sized Hyperion, who won the Epsom Derby in 1930. He seemed only to come to life on the racecourse and the likely reason was discovered after his death, when it was learned he had suffered from partial deafness. It is believed he only ever heard properly amid the clamour of the races and that the noise made him inclined to race, something he never did at home. (Muriel Lennox's enjoyable book is full of snippets like this and is written with care and in a style which is beautifully uncluttered.)

"The Dancer" duly inherited his great-grandad's lack of height and put off potential buyers because he was regarded as too small. This was a stroke of luck for owner/breeder E P Taylor, whose lifelong dream was to see a Canadian horse win the Kentucky Derby.

Amazingly, his stud fee started at a modest $10,000 (pounds 6,250) for a live foal. By 1984 it was $500,000 (pounds 312,500) with no guarantees whatever. Thereafter, until he retired in 1987, as much as $1m (pounds 625,000) was paid for a single breeding with no guarantee.

In 23 seasons he sired 635 foals of which 80 per cent (511) raced and an incredible 410 were winners. Of his 146 stakes winners, 26 were champions. The names read like a Who's Who. Nijinsky, Sadler's Wells, The Minstrel, Lyphard, El Gran Senor, Secreto, Nureyev.

At the annual yearling sales, other progeny went for record amounts. In 1983, a striking-looking bay was auctioned for $10.2m (pounds 6.9m) to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum. He named his new prize Snaafi Dancer. It never raced and was a failure at stud.