The Legend at 50: Northern Dancer and a Doping Mystery

The Kentucky Derby of 1964, run 50 years ago this weekend, would in some ways turn out to be one of the most important and telling in horseracing history, its real and symbolic impact felt a half-century later throughout a sport roiled by doping scandals, writes Ryan Goldberg for ProPublica, in a story published in F&O’s Think-Magazine section.

It sealed the reputation of Northern Dancer, one of the most iconic stallions of the 20th century, whose bloodlines today span the globe. And much of all that history turned on the outcome of one race, the length of a neck — and maybe a little help.

Was Northern Dancer, a member of the Canadian Hall of Fame, doped for the Derby? Says the heiress of his breeding stable: “It unfortunately just falls within the mists of time.” An excerpt of Goldberg’s story (free public access):

Northern Dancer

E.P. Taylor, a tycoon who rolled his inherited brewery fortune into dozens of Canadian companies, had bred Northern Dancer at his Windfields Farm outside Toronto. Canada had never delivered a Derby winner, and millions watched their national pride on television. Taylor, or Eddie to his friends, was a man “who often looks as though one of his many companies has just declared bankruptcy,” wrote Whitney Tower of Sports Illustrated.

Northern Dancer was a little runt, born late in the season, on May 27, 1961. When Taylor offered up his yearlings at his annual sale, there were no takers at the base price of $25,000. So Taylor kept him. Nevertheless, Northern Dancer’s pedigree was faultless, and for a horse his size he had a large girth — spacious room for heart and lungs. As he grew into his stocky frame on the racetrack, he shocked observers with exceptional balance.

Click here to read The Kentucky Derby, A Legendary Horse, and a Doping Mystery. (Free.)