Gravesite of horse racing legend and greatest sire to be included in Doors Open 2024 in Oshawa

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Published February 23, 2024 at 5:20 pm

Northern Dancer's grave. Photo by Glenn Hendry

The final resting place of one of Canada’s most famous sporting icons lies tucked away between a university campus and new residential neighbourhoods in north Oshawa – its history unknown to generations of the city’s citizens.

The location of legendary racehorse Northern Dancer’s burial site, while not exactly a secret, is guarded by fences to keep out vandals and unpublicized by the city. There’s a whole lot of people, from local residents, family members of those who used to work there to the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, who would like to see that changed.

On May 4 – 60 years (and two days) after the little horse that could famously won the 1964 Kentucky Derby – they will get their wish when the Northern Dancer Cemetery is added to Doors Open Ontario, an annual Ontario Heritage Trust project that works with communities across the province to open the doors, gates and courtyards of their cultural sites so visitors can explore the stories inside.

Oshawa Councillor John Gray said the quest to get the burial site added to the Doors Open agenda “sailed right through committee” and he expects a hands down final approval at Monday’s Council meeting.

“There has been a lot of interest generated from this,” he said. “This should create a lot of foot traffic for Doors Open.”

 

Northern Dancer, born at E.P. Taylor’s Windfield Farms racing stable in Oshawa in 1961, first earned his stripes on the track, winning the 1964 Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Queen’s Plate, and his status as Canada’s most successful racehorse is unchallenged. But it was his life on the stud farm and his legacy as the greatest sire of the 20th century (and beyond) that truly earned the horse global fame.

Northern Dancer Kentucky Derby

Northern Dancer, with jockey Bill Hartack and owner EP Taylor, after winning the 1964 Kentucky Derby

Northern Dancer was an immediate hit in the breeding barn – nearly half of his first crop became stakes winners and his second crop, led by English Triple Crown winner Nijinsky, brought his name to the international stage.

His fame necessitated a move to Taylor’s Maryland operations in 1968 and he quickly became the most sought-after sire of his time, with his stud fees eventually reaching $1 million, the first horse to ever do so.

By the time of his death at the ancient age of 29 in 1990, more than two-thirds of all his foals had won races and nearly a quarter had become stakes winners. Nearly 70 per cent of all thoroughbred horses racing today can trace their lineage back to him.

After his death Northern Dancer was loaded in a specially built oak coffin, wrapped in a blanket he had won during his racing career and brought back to Canada in a refrigerated van for burial at Windfields Farm.

The farm closed in 2009, with most of the 600-acre property sold to Durham College (and subsequently transferred to Ontario Tech University) and Northern Dancer’s burial site was not publicly accessible for many years, at one point becoming covered in weeds.

The grave, which also contains the remains of ten other horses (including 1960 Queen’s Plate winner Victoria Park) became an official heritage site in 2018, with the university tasked with maintaining and preserving the site.

Northern Dancer’s grandmother and the matriarch of the line, Lady Angela, is buried at the nearby Trillium Horse Cemetery.

Much of the former horse farm has been converted to residential or university use, but the core area, containing the Northern Dancer Cemetery, the Arena, Barn 2, Barn 6 (the Foaling Barn), and the Stallion Barn, remain. The arena and Barn 2 were both built for Parkwood Stables, the name of the property when Taylor bought it from Oshawa industrialist Col. Sam McLaughlin in 1950, and date back to the late 1920s.

 

Letters and emails from the public all called for the gravesite to be added to Doors Open:

  • “I would join the Doors Open tour just to see the gravesite of Northern Dancer. I am certain that it would be one of the most popular sites.” – Harriet
  • “It is an important part of Oshawa history and a vital element in thoroughbred history that can never be forgotten. Not sure why it wouldn’t have been included all along.” – Louise

And from Marianne, who grew up at Windfields as her father was the resident veterinarian and visited the site when it was included in Doors Open ten years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Northern Dancer’s 1964 championship racing season:

  • “I believe it to be such an important property with so much history not only because of the Taylor Family and Windfields but also because that land was once Parkwood Stables. I truly hope that you will consider opening the core to the public. If not forever, at least on this one day.”

And from Sarah, whose grandfather worked as a trainer at both the Oshawa and Maryland properties for 32 years:

  • “He was a truly incredible horseman. It would mean the world to me to have the opportunity to visit Northern Dancer’s grave site as a farewell to my amazing grandfather.”

The Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame also wrote in supporting the addition of the site to Doors Open, calling the site “one of the most iconic properties associated with Canadian horse racing.”

“Oshawa has within its boundaries … a property that is responsible for numerous stories that we must strive to bring to the public in tangible ways.”

Including the property as a Doors Open venue will provide an opportunity to “celebrate the achievements of the owners and horses” affiliated with Windfields and Oshawa, the Woodbine-based organization wrote, noting that 24 of Taylor’s horses – including six buried at the Northern Dancer cemetery – are in the Hall. “It has the potential to attract significant interest and traffic reaching throughout the Canadian and international horse racing world.”

The timing of including the gravesite in Doors Open is especially important, Gray noted, as not only is it the 60th anniversary of Northern Dancer’s victories in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Queen’s Plate, it is Oshawa’s centennial as an incorporated city.

Other site already included in Oshawa’s Doors Open agenda are Intrepid Park (Camp X), Ontario Regiment Museum, Union cemetery and Parkwoods, as well as more contemporary locations like Oshawa Botanical Gardens and the Robert McLaughlin Gallery.

Northern Dancer Cemetery. Photo Rosemary McConkey

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