Whatever else happens in 1964 in the booming sport of Thoroughbred racing (see following pages), top billing belongs to the act that will be played before a full house and a national television audience at New York's Aqueduct track this coming Saturday afternoon. And regardless of the result, the focal point for everyone's attention will be a wonderful little bay, Northern Dancer, as he tries for victory in the 96th running of the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes. A victory in the Belmont—any year—is an achievement of distinction in itself. A victory for Northern Dancer and Jockey Bill Hartack (see cover), following their triumphs in the 90th Kentucky Derby and 88th Preakness, would make Edward P. Taylor's Canadian-bred colt the ninth Triple Crown winner in history and first since 1948. The opening odds against such a parlay are immense.
Upward of 300,000 horses have been registered with The Jockey Club since it became possible for any one of them to win the Triple Crown nearly half a century ago. Just 27 have won two of the three classic events, but Northern Dancer is only the 14th to approach the challenge of the Belmont having already won the first two legs. Of his 13 predecessors, the eight pictured at right made it—so the mathematical odds are 8 to 5 in The Dancer's favor, perhaps about the same as those that will flash opposite his number on the Aqueduct tote board on Saturday. Of the five who failed, two had excellent excuses: Burgoo King (1932) and Bold Venture (1936) did not start in the Belmont. Pensive (1944) led to the stretch in his Belmont, then lost by half a length to longshot Bounding Home. Tim Tam (1958) broke down during the race, but hung on to take second behind Cavan. And in 1961 Carry Back, cut in the early running, ran one of his rare dull races to wind up seventh to the outsider, Sherluck.
If Northern Dancer can whip George Pope's California-bred Hill Rise for the third straight time his Triple Crown will be richly deserved and immensely popular. Suddenly, The Dancer has acquired an international following similar to Carry Back's in his heyday. When he reached his true third birthday on May 27, Northern Dancer received a cake of carrots ornamented with miniature Canadian flags from two of Taylor's friends, Frank and Betty McMahon. Outside his stall in Barn 31 was pinned a telegram that read, HAPPY BIRTHDAY AND MAY ALL YOUR TURNS LEAD TO SHORT STRETCHES. It was signed by the Princeton University Northern Dancer Syndicate and was just one of 300 cards and wires that arrived in tribute to a runner who has captured the fancy of punters everywhere.
Trainer Horatio Luro was not, however, allowing birthday fame to go to The Dancer's head—or to his stomach. (He was only allowed to nibble at the carrots.) "He has put on a little weight, which I like," said Luro. "He has trained very well and appears stronger every day."
Following the Preakness, Taylor said of The Dancer, "I think he'll be even better at a mile and a half. Any speed horse that you can rate has an advantage at this distance provided his jockey is a good judge of pace. We know this horse qualifies and so does Bill Hartack." Luro does not agree entirely with the boss's thinking. "Northern Dancer's best distance may actually be from a mile to a mile and an eighth," he says, "but his class, in relationship to the class of the competition, will permit him to run the Belmont distance. The long gallops have tuned his heart perfectly. If we don't make it, it won't be because he is not fit."
Surely Northern Dancer cannot be faulted on breeding class any more than he can be on performance. Both are nearly perfect. Although neither his sire, Nearctic, nor his dam, Natalma, achieved fame as U.S. fans recognize it, their ancestry reads, generation after generation, like a Who's Who of breeding and racing success. In The Dancer's veins flows the blood of Phalaris, Gainsborough, Discovery, Blenheim II, Hyperion, Mahmoud, Nearco and Native Dancer. To this add Luro's patient training methods and Hartack's skill and familiarity with Northern Dancer, and it is hard to see how he can be beaten by Hill Rise or any other entry. (Their rivals in the Belmont should include Roman Brother and possibly Determined Man, Quadrangle, Brave Lad and National, although none is considered a serious threat to the top two.)
"Hill Rise," says Trainer Bill Finnegan, "should benefit from the longer distance because I don't think he'll be so rank or hard to rate or half as nervous as before. I think his nervousness took a good deal out of him even before getting to the post in the Preakness." Finnegan also feels Hill Rise would run better at Aqueduct if the track were well watered; he considers it very tiring when fast and dry. But if Finnegan is looking for an edge in track conditions he may have come to the wrong spot. In two starts at Aqueduct, The Dancer has yet to lose (Hill Rise has never raced there). Northern Dancer's third start at the Big A should bring his third win—and the mightiest win for any horse in this country since Citation led by eight lengths at Belmont Park on June 12, 1948.