By Joe Hickey
Bonds made as classmates, teammates, roommates, shipmates, and soulmates often last a lifetime. And so, too, can bonds made among stablemates. Case in point: Northern Dancer and I were stablemates for about five years. Literally. Thanks to a cadre of distinguished sons--mostly grandsons, now--it seems at times that Northern Dancer never left us, for winners of seven of the eight 2004 Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships races carry his blood. Our bond was formed when the great son of Nearctic--Natalma, by Native Dancer, was relocated to Maryland after four seasons in his native Canada in time for the 1969 breeding season. He had gotten his stud career off to a brilliant start when his first live foal, Viceregal, undefeated at two, was the unanimous choice as Canada's Horse of the Year for 1968. Viceregal, year-older brother of noted sire Vice Regent, was among the 10 stakes winners from Northern Dancer's first crop of 21 foals. If the young stallion could do so well standing in Canada, to what heights might he rise if given access to America's top broodmares? His owner/breeder, Edward Plunket Taylor, founder of Windfields Farm, was intrigued by the possibilities and ordered the young stallion moved from Oshawa, Ontario, to his rapidly expanding satellite operation on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Nijinsky II was a yearling when, on a fog-shrouded morning in December 1968, his sire stepped off a van in Cecil County. I rode in shortly thereafter aboard a '64 1/2 black Mustang. Until 1973, when a state-of-the-art stallion facility was built, Northern Dancer and I shared quarters in a four-stall stud barn on the former Maryland Stallion Station. To accommodate me, Halina Braunstein's handsome 1959 Preakness winner Royal Orbit was moved to an auxiliary stud barn, and I set up an office in his former stall. Once a floor was installed, the ceiling dropped, and the walls paneled, I hung up my shingle. Northern Dancer broke running and never looked back. The very first mare he bred in Maryland, Warner L. Jones Jr.'s Fly by Venus, produced the graded stakes-winning filly North of Venus. The move to Maryland was about to produce the hoped-for results. In spades. Northern Dancer, always a good-feeling colt, was a sultan, all right. He thought every mare that came on the farm was his prize. He would rear up, place his forefeet on his stall's window grillwork and squeal in delight at the drop of a loading ramp. Dancer loved to be on stage almost as much as on his "pitcher's mound," insisting that visitors first fawn over him before addressing the other stallions. As his reputation grew, pilgrims came in ever-increasing numbers: touring actors, TV and print journalists, sports celebrities, lords and ladies, and horse-happy little girls. It was great fun to note guests' reaction when the 15.1-hand "pocket battleship" was led out for inspection. One noted Australian horseman was taken aback when he sized up the legendary sire. "That's Northern Dancer?" he gasped. "Why, back home we've got 'roos bigger'n 'im," he said in disbelief. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, however, approached the stallion with almost an air of reverence when he visited Windfields. Later, when presented a photograph taken with Northern Dancer, Sheikh Mohammed accepted it graciously, saying, "You don't know how much this horse means to me." Two decades and hundreds of millions of dollars later, our industry has yet to plumb the depths of the Maktoum family's passion for the Thoroughbred. Just over 14 years ago--Nov. 16, 1990--Northern Dancer's heart stopped beating at age 29. In an oak casket I had commissioned years earlier, his body was transported to Windfields Oshawa to be buried where he was foaled. Stallion management has undergone a sea-change since Northern Dancer and I were roomies. Stallion shuttling and books of 200 or more mares are commonplace today. The Dancer never had more than 46 mares during any of his 23 years at stud. And that number only twice. Yet, he sired 147 stakes winners and 23 champions. His place in history is secure.JOE HICKEY, who lives in Easton, Md., has been a publicist, writer, breeding farm administrator, and racing commissioner.