Kevin Chong's Northern Dancer draws out a nation’s sense of self

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Northern Dancer
By Kevin Chong. Viking Canada, 320 pp, hardcover

Half a century ago, Canada was a country without its own flag when Northern Dancer captured the imagination of citizens from coast to coast. The undersize colt had inadvertently “become a national symbol in the complete absence of one” and was emblematic not only of pride but ambition as well.

Vancouver’s Kevin Chong chronicles the iconic racehorse’s 1964 campaign in his latest volume, Northern Dancer, a record of the thoroughbred’s wins at the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Queen’s Plate. Reflecting on an emerging national identity, the author and journalist illustrates “an age when racehorses could be television stars”, recounting how the Oshawa-born Northern Dancer rose to prominence as a competitor and sire.

Horses alone cannot navigate track culture, and Chong focuses on individuals who were key to Northern Dancer’s success: his owner, E. P. Taylor, the tycoon who relished the victories and founded the Argus Corporation; his trainer, Horatio Luro, the playboy who nurtured charges and romanced stars of the silver screen; and Bill Hartack, the jockey who rode the colt across finish lines and fostered a contentious relationship with the press.

Extensive in detail and meticulously noted, the text is built from interviews the author conducted with colleagues and family of these figures, and from other sources, including the CBC archives and Library and Archives Canada. Chong’s prose, both fiction and nonfiction, is characterized by its breadth of offbeat information—Northern Dancer’s banner year saw the first Ford Mustang produced in America and the debut of brunette Barbie—and yields sound portraits of the three men and their prized contender.

Beyond Northern Dancer’s racing career, the narrative surveys his subsequent run as a stallion. Between 1965 and 1987 “he had produced 635 foals, 467 winners, and 147 stakes winners,” and today his descendants are spread around the globe.

Following My Year of the Racehorse, his 2012 memoir, Chong returns to the sport of kings and provides an avid account of Northern Dancer during a spirited moment in Canadian history.

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