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horse racing

In this file photo, Northern Dancer turns in a brisk workout April 30, 1964, at Churchill Downs, Louisville, Kentucky.AP/The Associated Press

Racing buffs called Northern Dancer a short horse at 15 hands high.

But for a short horse, who couldn't even attract a bid for E.P. Taylor at the yearling auction, he wound up casting a long shadow on the track and in the breeding shed, as a stakes winner and top sire. He was the epitome of 'the little one who could.'

Northern Dancer, Canada's greatest four-legged runner, will be celebrated at Woodbine Race Track in Toronto for the next three days with a special showing of artifacts at the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, video presentations of his wins, three days of special programs for fans and a birthday cake.

"What makes him special is that he had the temperament and will to win," said John Stapleton, president of the CHRHOF.

"He was a late foal [in 1961] In real time, he was really a two-year-old at the time he won the Kentucky Derby and set a track record of 2:00 minutes flat. It took nine years and a super horse - Secretariat - to break that record."

Northern Dancer was born 50 years ago in Oshawa, Ont., on a dark, stormy night - an outcast from the start. He was put down humanely in November, 1990 after an attack of colic.

In between he earned a reputation of being unruly, determined, quick of foot and of mind - and randy. He won stakes races - notably the 1964 Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Queen's Plate - and bred 635 foals (almost 500 started races), 369 winners and 146 stakes winners.

When this year's Kentucky Derby was run - 27 years after Northern Dancer's historic win under the hand of Bill Hartack - the first and third-place finishers were of Northern Dancer's bloodline.

His influence on the sport is legendary, starting with Viceregal, a seven-time stakes winner, in his first breeding crop. Sons Nijinsky, Secreto and The Minstrel all went on to win Britain's Epson Derby. There are more than 1,000 stakes winners in the Northern Dancer line, with as much as 70 per cent of today's thoroughbreds having some blood link to the Canadian stallion.

If hormones had anything to do with Northern Dancer's drive, he seemed to have enough for both running and breeding. One of the stories about Northern Dancer is that though he was taken to the track to run, his real interest was in the fillies.

"He's the only horse I know of who stood stud for $1-million with no guarantee," said Tom Cosgrove, director of racing at Woodbine Entertainment and the man who pulled together much of the material on display at the CHRHOF. "He should have the Order of Canada."

The Dancer drew his first breath across the hall from the official tidy foaling stall at Taylor's Windfields Farm. Another mare was having trouble delivering while Northern Dancer was ready to bust out of mother Natalma, so he started life in second-best surroundings. He was short and had a deep chest, looking as though there were some quarter horse in his background, though there is none.

The son of Nearctic and Natalma, the only Canadian-bred horse to finish first in the famous Kentucky Derby and the Queen's Plate, was ready to go from his inauspicious start right to the end, when he bowed out with a final win in the Queen's Plate.

It was hardly a polite bow. He came from off the pace to beat his half brother Langcrest, another Nearctic scion foaled in 1961. According to the Hall of Fame, they met only once on the track, the 1964 Queen's Plate, a race the Dancer won by 7 1/2 lengths.

Langcrest - himself a Hall of Fame horse with 15 wins in 36 starts - was given little chance at 57-to-1 odds. Trainer Ted Mann and jockey Sam McComb decided that their only chance against the Kentucky Derby winner would be to take the lead and try to hold on.

"We were loft alone to ride our race and do things our way," McComb recalled in an interview. "I had the bigger horse, I was out in front as we swung for home. Then, the shadow fell on the track. It was the shadow of Northern Dancer, and he just ate up the track for Bill Hartack."

It was Northern Dancer's last run, and he won going away, with Langcrest a respectful second. In the jockey's room, Hartack, visiting from the United States, tossed his whip across to McComb.

"It's yours," he said, "I didn't need it."

And so McComb has a piece of Northern Dancer's last charge around Woodbine. "No," he said. "No, you didn't, not on that horse."