E. P. Taylor: Canadian Visionary

Legends
E. P. Taylor is regarded as one of the greatest Thoroughbred breeders of all time in North America.
E. P. Taylor is regarded as one of the greatest Thoroughbred breeders of all time in North America. (Michael Burns/BloodHorse photo)

Edward Plunket Taylor was a brewery magnate, financier, and legendary entrepreneur who was one of Canada's richest men. A world figure in Thoroughbred racing and breeding, E. P.'s business approach to the sport would come to shape modern Thoroughbred racing, not only in Canada but worldwide. 

He was the first man to breed the winners of the Kentucky Derby (Northern Dancer in 1964) and the English Derby (in 1970 by Nijinsky, a son of Northern Dancer). Taylor filled winners' circles for kings, queens, sheikhs, and all manner of moneyed horseplayers who coveted his superlative bloodstock. 

A big booming man with a jovial disposition, on marquee days at the racetrack Taylor was often photographed in top hat and morning suit. He owned a sprawling estate outside of London, residences in Toronto, and Lyford Cay in the Bahamas. Still, Taylor’s favorite place to hang his hat was his flagship showplace in Chesapeake City, Md., a quaint waterside village in the northeast corner of Maryland.

Northern Dancer at stud in 1983
Northern Dancer at stud in 1983 (Milt Toby/BloodHorse photo)

During the 1960s when visiting Chesapeake City horse country Taylor would stay at Mrs. Allaire du Pont’s Woodstock Farm. The farm was then home to Mrs. du Pont's legendary Kelso-- the only five-time Horse of the Year. After a string of Taylor visits, one day Mrs. du Pont inquired, “Eddie, why don’t you get your own place? My neighbor lives in a falling down house. Let me see if she’ll sell it.”

He bought the 200 acre farm in July 1968. Confounding conventional wisdom, Taylor bypassed Kentucky and set up his U. S. Windfields Farm breeding operations that expanded to 1,500 acres. On a cold, blustery afternoon that December, Northern Dancer arrived. Then in the spring of 1970 Northern Dancer’s regal Irish colt Nijinsky swept the English Triple Crown. The powerful bay colt was celebrated as Horse of the Year in both England and Ireland. For Taylor, the gold rush was on.

Northern Dancer became the chief architect of Taylor's breeding empire. Nijinsky II, Storm Bird, The Minstrel, Secreto, El Gran Senor, Glorious Song, and Devil’s Bag were just a few of the many greats to emerge in a span of barely 30 years from the phenomenal Windfields program. It is generally acknowledged as the most successful breeding operation of all time, anywhere.

Early years

Taylor was born in Ottawa, Ontario, on Jan. 29, 1901. While at McGill University as a mechanical engineering student, Taylor invented and patented a toaster that would toast both sides of the bread. A manufacturing company bought the exclusive rights. Royalties poured in. Taylor made his first trip to the racetrack, Blue Bonnets Raceway, in 1920.

Astute and tenacious, Taylor was involved in a multitude of initial ventures from taxicabs to bakeries to beer. When he took control of his grandfather's brewing business in the 1930s he consolidated a number of small unprofitable companies and formed Canadian Breweries, a model of acquisition and consolidation that would become the hallmark of his career.

After World War II, Taylor and his partners formed Argus Corp., a holding company that dominated Canadian business with interests throughout the economy from grocery stores and soft drinks to the mining and pulp and paper industries to insurance and broadcasting. At the time of Taylor's retirement, Argus controlled companies with assets in excess of $2 billion.

In 1959 Taylor unveiled the exclusive and gated Lyford Cay community in the Bahamas as a getaway for the super-rich. Among its initial members were such icons as the Earl of Carnarvon, CBS Board Chairman William Paley, the Earl of Dudley, Henry Ford II, and Vice Chairman of Time Inc. Roy E. Larsen.

A 1966 New York Times story about Taylor ran this headline: "He Doesn’t Really Own Canada."

''People don't understand that the principal motivation is not money," Taylor once remarked. "I do something that is constructive. There are people who like to paint or garden. I like to create things.'' 

In the late 1940s and early 1950s as Windfields Farm was establishing its reputation, Taylor began reorganizing the practice of horse racing in Ontario. Adopting the same philosophy that he had used so successfully in business, Taylor revamped the Ontario Jockey Club, consolidating the province's 14 independent racetracks into a smaller circuit of elite racetracks.  He championed the new Woodbine Racecourse that would give Toronto a facility to match any track in the world.

"He was a pioneer in this field and was instrumental in establishing Sunday racing, turf races, emphasizing the importance of stakes races for fillies and mares and a comprehensive stakes schedule patterned on the English program of classic racing," said his son Charles.

In 1949, the colt appropriately named Taylor's Epic won the King's Plate, North America's oldest stakes race. Eleven Queen's (or King's) Plate winners raced to victory wearing Taylor's or Windfields Farm's colors, and another 11 Plate winners were bred by Taylor.

But Taylor's focus, even more than on racing, was breeding. He traveled to England to buy horses for their bloodlines and placed them at Windfields. Taylor didn't invent the monopolist approach to Thoroughbred racing, he only perfected it.

Taylor topped the list of breeders in North America in races won from 1960 to 1969 and from 1977 to 1985. In addition, he was the top breeder in money won on the continent nine times, from 1974 to 1980, and again in 1983 and 1985. His breeding empire turned out more worldwide stakes winners than any other 20th century operation, in excess of 320 horses around the world.

In August 1958 Taylor made a momentous decision: he spent $35,000 on a yearling filly at the annual Saratoga sale.  She did not have a long and stellar racing career, only racing on seven occasions before a bone chip in her knee forced her retirement. Her name was Natalma. She was bred to Windfields' Nearctic, who had won the 1958 Sovereign Award for Canadian Horse of the Year. The mating produced Northern Dancer.

Taylor with Northern Dancer after the Preakness
Taylor with Northern Dancer after the Preakness (BloodHorse photo)

Small and stocky, the bonny bay colt with a white blaze down his nose was built more like an old-style quarter horse than a sleek thoroughbred. Taylor offered the colt for $25,000 at his 1962 yearling sale. There were no takers. Two years later in the lead-up to the Kentucky Derby, the press poked fun at the colt’s pint-size (15.1 hands) stature.  Then Northern Dancer uncorked a jaw-dropping two-minute flat run to break the 89-year old track record and become the first Canadian-born and -bred horse to win the world’s most famous race.

Two weeks later Northern Dancer swept the Preakness Stakes, and then finished third in the Belmont where some contend that jockey Bill Hartack misjudged the pace.  A few weeks later Northern Dancer returned to his native land and captured the Queen’s Plate at Woodbine.  However, his left foreleg tendons were so badly strained from a tough summer of competition that he was retired to stud.  The “pocket battleship” won 14 of his 18 races and never finished worse than third. Still, the best was yet to come. 

Kingmaker

As strong with fillies as he was with colts, Northern Dancer was the leading sire in North America in 1971 and 1977 and the leading sire in England in 1970, 1977, 1983 and 1984.  Sire of a then-record 134 stakes winners, Northern Dancer produced 49 yearlings that sold for $1 million or more. At the height of his glory People Magazine described Northern Dancer as "the only celebrity that could earn a million dollars before breakfast."

Northern Dancer's prowess translated to stud fees that soared from an initial $10,000 for a live foal to $500,000, no guarantee, in 1984. However, private deals saw a $1 million change hands for the services of the world’s top sire. Taylor was offered an astounding $40 million for Northern Dancer in 1981 when the stallion was 20 years old. One shareholder wired back: “Over my dead body!” When he was pensioned at age 26 Northern Dancer’s lifetime stud fees tallied up to $117,752,000.

The late Joe Hickey was there for all the high-flying action. A former turf writer and publicity director for Pimlico Race Course, Hickey arrived at Windfields in Maryland as Taylor's assistant in March 1969. There were 32 shares in the Northern Dancer syndicate with four extra breeding rights so his normal book of mares was 36. Other early stallions such as Royal Orbit, Impressive, Nail, and Eurasian covered as many as 50-55.

“By restricting the numbers (breeding rights) you were maintaining the vigor of the horse which I believe was why he was a stallion for so long,” Hickey explained. “It also created a terrific premium on his yearlings, as there would only be a dozen or so sold in a year."

Hickey recalled Northern Dancer was like the pony in the circus-- pom-poms on, monkey on his back-- that’s the way he pranced out of the breeding shed.  

"Northern Dancer was very confident, cocksure of himself," he said. "He was a tough horse, not mean but tough to breed. He passed on that stubborness to his sons and daughters and that’s what made them champions. I don’t think he knew he was small. He made up for it in bulk.  He was like a little bull.”

Taylor's farm also launched the breeding careers of Halo and Deputy Minister, who both went on to major stud careers. As Taylor's representative, Hickey engineered Windfields' acquisition and syndication of 20 stallions, including the $41 million syndication deal for El Gran Senor, the $25 million syndication of Assert, and the $36 million sale of Halo to Tom Tatham and Arthur B. Hancock III.

In its glory years Windfields was home to more than 100 farm employees. Hickey fondly remembered get-togethers with his big and burly, yet amiable boss during “evening stables.” The relentless business tycoon stopped to visit with each animal.

“He would make comments like ‘seems this one wants two turns’ or ‘how far is the colt away from racing,’” Hickey remembered. “At the end we would sit on a bale of hay and talk. You could see his love of horses was genuine. Mr. Taylor had a couple of very stocky ponies that he enjoyed riding around the farm or over to Mrs. du Pont’s farm across the road. It was a peaceful time for him.”

Epilogue

Taylor suffered a major stroke while in Lyford Cay in 1980. More strokes followed. He never left the Bahamas again, passing away on May 14, 1989. For the world’s most illustrious Thoroughbred breeder, the cruel irony was that Taylor was unaware of the glory years when Northern Dancer’s sons and daughters stamped Windfields as the leading consignor at the Keeneland sales.

A former foreign correspondent and prominent political author, his son Charles took over the reins. But when Northern Dancer was pensioned in 1987 the massive income from his breeding rights vanished. In a move stunning to Windfields’ longtime employees, Charles shuttered the farm's breeding operation in August 1988.

Northern Dancer died at Windfelds in 1990 at the age of 29. He was transported in a refrigerated van from the Maryland farm to Windfields Farm, Oshawa, Ontario, in a large pine coffin. A national hero was welcomed home. He was buried midway between the barn where he was born and the barn where he created his first classic runner.

"Northern Dancer was the greatest gem in Mr. Taylor's crown, the greatest commercial sire of all time,” Hickey observed. “They’ll be selling horses for a lot of years to come but they’ll never experience the worldwide influence Northern Dancer delivered.”


Fun Facts

  • Taylor was 12 years old when he started his first business, breeding and selling rabbits.
  • While at McGill University on weekends Taylor was a rider with the Royal Canadian Dragoons and hacked through the countryside outside of Toronto.
  • Complaining about the inefficiency of the local bus service, Taylor and a friend started their own bus line. The two young men drove the buses and turned it into a successful business before selling it to the Capital Bus Line.
  • At age 23 flush with cash, Taylor bought himself a green convertible Pontiac. Six weeks after meeting the blonde and petite Winnie Thornton Duguid, Taylor proposed, and they were married, driving off in the Pontiac for their honeymoon.  
  • Northern Dancer sired three Epsom Derby winners-- Nijinsky (Nijinsky II in North America), The Minstrel, and Secreto-- all bred by Taylor’s Windfields Farm.
  • Windfields Farm is considered the most successful breeder in the history of Thoroughbred horse racing.
  • Inducted into the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame as a Pillar of the Turf in 2014

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