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Northern Dancer: A smart recreation of the unexpected Kentucky Derby winner

The Canadian bay that won the Kentucky Derby was an unexpected icon.

Michael Burns Sr.

Northern Dancer
Kevin Chong
320 pages

When Northern Dancer entered the starting gate for the Preakness Stakes 50 years ago, he was still an underdog.

Two Saturdays before, the stocky Canadian-born bay had won the mile-and-a-quarter Kentucky Derby in the record time of two minutes flat, which should have silenced the non-believers.

But the connoisseurs of horse flesh preferred to trust the evidence of their own eyes rather than the cold, hard numbers: They derided Dancer's short, compact build, and they refused to put trust in a high-energy, short-striding style that lacked the easy elegance of the true thoroughbred. If they had ever heard of Oshawa, Ont., the three-year-old's home town, they would have mocked it too – how could the site of a General Motors plant compete with Kentucky bluegrass?

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Dancer didn't conform to the model of a champion. Aesthetic prejudice, Kevin Chong points out in his smart recreation of a four-legged hero and his fascinating, faraway milieu, wrongly decreed that the eventual winner of the Preakness was a misfit – the archetypal Canadian who wasn't good enough to make it in the United States.

In a world where a large part of success is looking the part, such prophecies are often self-fulfilling. But sport is enough of a meritocracy that exceptions can still prevail over the bias of human judgments. From that defiance of miscalculation comes both the dramatic tension and the patriotic pleasure in Dancer's quest.

Canada was a very different place 50 years ago. One of the accomplishments of Chong's diversionary narrative is how he conjures up the country of the same name that didn't yet possess its own flag or anthem and had yet to manufacture Own the Podium swagger or get blamed for Bieber Fever. Modesty was a national trait, and it was hard to know how good Canadians were until they were acclaimed somewhere else – a record-setting run at the Kentucky Derby was the popular equivalent of Alice Munro winning the Nobel Prize.

Northern Dancer wasn't the ideal working-class hero. In a sport consumed by the nobility of pedigree, his bloodlines were impeccable – by birth he may have been a lowly Canadian, but his ancestors had won the Grand Prix de Paris, the Epsom Derby, the Belmont Stakes and the Preakness. He was owned by E.P. Taylor, an almost stereotypical racing tycoon in a top hat and morning suit who spent time between the Derby and the Preakness looking after his global brewery interests and making small talk about horses with the Queen.

Chong, to his credit, doesn't shy away from all the contradictions in the Northern Dancer legend. He gives Taylor much more scrutiny than would be required in a horsey hagiography, and the period portrait of an acquisitive magnate who was reviled almost as much as his horse was loved is a very satisfying digression. Taylor made his money as a kind of business modernist, a opportunist who saw value in the efficiencies of mergers that turned small-scale, human-sized operations into vast organizations geared to profit. Such men neither seek love nor find it.

So the passion that Northern Dancer inspired in Canadians who had no time for tycoons was initially problematic. Taylor had made himself a force in Canadian horse-racing the same way he had built his brewery empire, buying up and then shutting down the small-scale operations that couldn't keep up with the modernizer's times.

Breeding horses might have seemed a bit retro and ancien regime for this portly go-getter, but Chong neatly shows how the success of Northern Dancer emerged from exactly the same restless entrepreneurship – the control-freak side of breeding and the immense profits it could generate when done right delighted Taylor equally.

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None of this fits with a traditional sports narrative, which means that Northern Dancer sometimes feels like it's wandering away from its main theme. But that's the whole point of horse-racing, with its mute, anthropomorphized, two-minute heroes – so many other stories ride along on the thoroughbred's back.

Chong gets to tell us about the creation of an ideal Canadian suburb, the evolution of the modern race-horse via the Crusades and the court of King Charles II, a womanizing Argentine trainer named Horatio Luro (whose speech is unfortunately rendered here in the pidjin English preferred by 1960s sportswriters), the culture of the jockey world (where Dancer's rider, Bill Hartack, stood out as an extreme misanthrope) and the innumerable ways in which the sport of kings deviates from its pose of mint-julep gentility. All of it fits this all-encompassing sport – even Marshall McLuhan makes an unexpected appearance since his seminal book, Understanding Media, coincided with Dancer's rise to fame.

Dancer's Triple Crown aspirations ended disappointingly with a third-place finish at the Belmont (blame the rider, not the horse, goes the patriot's narrative) but the hero of a nation was still presented with Toronto's key to the city, sculpted out of a carrot.

In the wider world of horse-racing, this is where Dancer's story really takes off. As a sire of champions, he was the best there was, with a stud fee that reached a million dollars, and a colt that was sold to an Emirates Sheikh for $10.2 million in 1983.

But somehow that big-money side doesn't fit the image of the underdog we still like to cultivate. So Chong offers a more telling detail about a horse for whom size wasn't everything. When he was brought in to breed with much taller mares, he used a custom-built ramp to prove that he belonged with the best, that his indomitable spirit would find a way to beat the odds.

John Allemang is a features writer at The Globe and Mail.

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