A brief his­tory of the Thor­ough­bred

Sort­ing fact from myth in the ori­gins of the world’s great­est equine ath­lete.

EQUUS - - Contents - By Deb Ben­nett, PhD

Sort­ing fact from myth in the ori­gins of the world’s great­est equine ath­lete.

Since its in­cep­tion more than three cen­turies ago, the Thor­ough­bred has spread to almost ev­ery coun­try of the world and is with­out doubt the world’s most im­por­tant liv­ing horse breed.

Cre­ated in Eng­land by cross­breed­ing se­lected strains pos­sessed ei­ther of sprint speed or stayer “bot­tom,” it con­tin­ues to­day to be a sig­nif­i­cant pro­gen­i­tor used to cre­ate and im­prove other breeds. The Thor­ough­bred owes its ori­gin not only to the ju­di­cious se­lec­tion of sire and dam, but also to a bril­liant ex­per­i­ment: Long be­fore warm­blood in­spec­tions, long be­fore the Amer­i­can Stan­dard­bred was named for it, the Thor­ough­bred came into be­ing through the world’s first de­lib­er­ate at­tempt to cre­ate equine ath­letes by rig­or­ous per­for­mance test­ing.

Thanks to Mar­guerite Henry’s won­der­fully il­lus­trated horse books for chil­dren, I doubt that there’s a horse-loving grownup who doesn’t know that Thor­ough­breds trace back to three fa­mous sires called the Dar­ley Ara­bian, the Godol­phin Ara­bian and the By­er­ley Turk. Henry’s books, and other pur­ported bi­ogra­phies, ig­nore the im­por­tant story of the mares upon which the Thor­ough­bred is founded and from which it de­rives its speed. Such works are en­ter­tain­ing partly be­cause they rely on ro­man­tic ideas: for ex­am­ple, that the Godol­phin was “dis­cov­ered” pulling a cart in Paris---real good dra­matic ma­te­rial, rags-to-riches ad­ven­tures ex­cel­lent for en­gag­ing in­ter­est and pulling the reader’s heart­strings.

Real his­tory is, how­ever, both more nu­anced and a lot more in­ter­est­ing. In re­search­ing her book, Henry re­lied upon an old source--- His­tory of the Bri­tish Turf, From the Ear­li­est Times to the Present Day, by James Christie Whyte, esq., writ­ten in 1840. While it is an old tome and a weighty one at that--con­tain­ing not only pedi­grees but some 350 pages of sto­ries and lore---Whyte’s book does not al­ways care­fully dis­tin­guish be­tween myth and fact, and it is not con­sid­ered a pri­mary source. A good his­to­rian is, how­ever, ob­li­gated to go as

much as pos­si­ble to pri­mary sources ---doc­u­ments and art­work that hark all the way back to the 16th and 17th cen­turies, the pe­riod dur­ing which the Thor­ough­bred came into be­ing.

Pri­mary doc­u­ments con­sti­tute di­rect ev­i­dence left by the kings, noble­men, am­bas­sadors, im­porters, own­ers, breed­ers, artists and track fanciers who cre­ated the Thor­ough­bred horse. Many sources must be searched out and com­pared, for rarely can any sin­gle doc­u­ment tell the whole story. Rather, each con­trib­utes a piece to what breed his­to­rian Alexan­der Mackay-Smith has la­beled “a body of cir­cum­stan­tial ev­i­dence” from which we must draw con­clu­sions. To re­duce the chance of mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion, we also must look out for dif­fer­ences in names and ter­mi­nol­ogy, be­cause the like­li­hood is that over the course of cen­turies, the mean­ing of cer­tain words has changed; un­like Thomas Blun­dev­ille and Ger­vase Markham, whose 16th and early 17th cen­tury works are quoted be­low, we no longer speak Shake­spearean English. To­day we are also ob­li­gated to ex­am­ine DNA ev­i­dence to see what it can tell us con­cern­ing the real ori­gins and blood re­la­tion­ships of the Thor­ough­bred.


Horserac­ing is a popular di­ver­sion that has been en­joyed by king and com­moner alike in all horse-breed­ing coun­tries from an­cient times to the present. In the days of the Ro­man Em­pire, hotly con­tested races were held in hip­po­dromes. Dur­ing the Mid­dle Ages and Re­nais­sance, Palio rac­ing con­tin­ued in Italy. For th­ese sports, Hobby horses pos­sessed of blaz­ing “sprint” speed (see “The World’s Most Im­por­tant Horse

Breed,” EQUUS 446) proved best.

Cours­ing after deer, on the other hand, de­manded a com­pletely dif­fer­ent type of horse, one that could run all day long, get­ting an op­por­tu­nity to rest only when there came a “check,” dur­ing which the dogs worked out the di­rec­tion taken by the stag. By the 15th cen­tury in Eng­land, this type of very longdis­tance “hunt”---open only to the no­bil­ity---had been reg­u­lar­ized into heat races in which mounts were ex­pected to course for be­tween four and 12 miles three or four times in a sin­gle day, with brief breathers in be­tween.

To­day as in the past, horser­aces held at tracks far out­num­ber steeplecha­ses, point-to-points or hunt races run across coun­try. Four hun­dred years ago in Eng­land, the most popular races were quar­ter-mile sprints. Short, in­tense and easy for a crowd to view from start to fin­ish, th­ese races were rid­den along a straight stretch of dirt from a start­ing line---gen­er­ally be­fore the doors of an inn where pota­bles could be en­joyed and where bets were traded fast and fu­ri­ous---to a white post that marked the fin­ish.

Those in­ter­ested in con­for­ma­tion anal­y­sis, who have read my pre­vi­ous ar­ti­cles on race­horse con­for­ma­tion pub­lished in th­ese pages, will al­ready re­al­ize that the build of win­ning “hunt rac­ers” could not pos­si­bly have been the same as that of the win­ning quar­ter­mile sprint­ers. Hunters and hunt-rac­ers were broader, shorter-cou­pled, flat­ter­mus­cled and stouter of limb than sprint­ers. Their over­all body bal­ance was near-level, whereas that of the suc­cess­ful sprinter ran down­hill from hugely mus­cled hindquar­ters that stood higher than the an­i­mal’s withers. Not vis­i­ble but equally im­por­tant were the phys­i­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences that gave sprint­ers blaz­ing speed but hunt-rac­ers “bot­tom”

or en­durance ca­pa­bil­ity. From an­cient times on­ward, it had been be­lieved that a horse could have one or the other of th­ese char­ac­ter­is­tics, but not both.

In my last in­stall­ment, I re­viewed the breed used for English sprint­rac­ing, the speed­i­est horse in Europe: the Hobby. Dur­ing the 16th cen­tury, two strains of sprint-rac­ers were be­ing bred in Eng­land: the pure Hobby, a smaller horse whose breed­ing lay close to strains cre­ated in an­tiq­uity by the kings of Ire­land, and the “English Run­ninge-Horse,” founded on Hobby but a lit­tle leg­gier be­cause it car­ried crosses of Barb or Tur­co­man blood. Ger­vase Markham, noted English horse­man, writ­ing in his book Cavalarice of 1617, com­pares dif­fer­ent types of horses tried for speed:

“We finde that the Turkes [Tur­co­mans] are much swifter horses than the [Span­ish] Jenets, and the Bar­baries much swifter than the Turkes, and some English [Run­ning-Horses] are swifter than ei­ther Jenet, Turke, or Bar­bary. Wit­ness … the Hob­bie of Mais­ter Carl­ton, and at this houre, the most fa­mous [English Run­ning-Horse] Pup­pie against whom men may talke, but they can­not con­quer.”

The so-called “royal mares” be­long­ing to Henry VIII have fre­quently been men­tioned as the foun­da­tion blood­stock for the Thor­ough­bred horse, which de­vel­oped in the cen­tury fol­low­ing Henry’s death. As with most royal col­lec­tions, they turn out to have been a some­what mixed lot. Among them were some Span­ish Jen­nets and Barbs, but the majority ap­pear to have been Hob­bies, and it was Hobby blood that all con­tem­po­rary au­thor­i­ties rec­og­nized as be­ing most de­sir­able for sprint rac­ing.

At the op­po­site ex­treme lay the “Bar­baries” or “Bar­bar­ians.” In the time of El­iz­a­beth I, horse­mas­ter Thomas Blun­dev­ille in his The Fower Chiefyst Of­fices Be­long­yng to Horse­man­shippe (1565) noted “those horses that we com­monly call Bar­bar­ians, do come out of the King of Tun­nis­land … and they are able to make a ver­rie long car­rere, which is the cause why we es­teem them so much.” The most suc­cess­ful hunt-rac­ers and hunt­ing horses were bred by Barb cover to “Chap­man” mares. For cen­turies, the Chap­mans, a strain of sturdy util­ity horses, had been bred in the Vale of Cleve­land in Northum­ber­land, so that they were also known as Cleve­land Bays. Even to­day, the Bri­tish strains of Thor­ough­bred pro­duced specif­i­cally for hunt­ing hark back to this an­ces­try and show it in their more mas­sive build, which is not suit­able for the flat track.

In­ter­me­di­ate be­tween the Hob­bies and the Barbs, both in terms of con­for­ma­tion and in terms of phys­i­ol­ogy, were the Tur­co­mans that for the most part ar­rived in Eng­land as diplo­matic gifts from the Sul­tans of the Ot­toman Em­pire. Then, as now, Tur­co­man horses had the pe­cu­liar char­ac­ter­is­tic of be­ing able to hold near-sprint speed over a dis­tance greater than a quar­ter-mile; in other words, they com­bined speed with “bot­tom.” The English Run­ning-Horse ---bred by topcross­ing Hobby mares with Tur­co­man sires---thus rep­re­sented an at­tempt to in­crease the Tur­co­man’s speed while re­tain­ing its re­fine­ment and tough­ness. Bri­tish breed­ers would not re­al­ize the full po­ten­tial of this type of cross­bred, how­ever, un­til the mid­dle of the 18th cen­tury.

The Thor­ough­bred horse is thus the prod­uct of cross­breed­ing of all the kinds of horses named by Markham---mostly Tur­co­man, Barb and Hobby, with a dash of Span­ish blood---plus one more. DNA from an

ar­ray of liv­ing Thor­ough­breds and pure­bred (“Asil”) Ara­bi­ans in­di­cates that there is no Asil blood in to­day’s Thor­ough­bred horse. How­ever, his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments in­di­cate that Tur­co­man horses some­times car­ried Ara­bian crosses. Sul­tans put high pri­or­ity on the beauty of strains in­tended as diplo­matic gifts. Cer­tain horses called “Ara­bi­ans” and whose names lie at the root of Thor­ough­bred pedi­grees may in fact have car­ried some Asil crosses. Which horses th­ese were, and what the so­bri­quet “Ara­bian” ac­tu­ally meant in the 16th through early 18th cen­turies, is another point we will look into be­low.


The “plaine bred English run­ninge horses” that Markham ad­mires in the first decades of the 17th cen­tury were ac­tu­ally not at all “plain.” In­stead they were elite blood­stock, the prod­uct of much knowl­edge­able ef­fort by English kings, their masters of stud, and a few other wealthy no­bil­ity and gen­try whose pas­sion was horserac­ing. Along with the king, th­ese early pa­trons of the sport es­tab­lished studs, each con­tain­ing valu­able col­lec­tions of brood­mares, in var­i­ous places through­out Eng­land.

The English Ref­or­ma­tion re­sulted in tu­mult and de­struc­tion

dur­ing the early half of the 16th cen­tury. Thomas Cromwell, un­der or­ders from Henry VIII to de­stroy Catholic es­tab­lish­ments, added to the King’s hold­ings by con­fis­cat­ing good Hobby and English run­ning mares that had been owned and bred by monas­ter­ies in the north of Eng­land.

James I, one of Henry VIII’s Protes­tant suc­ces­sors, was a pas­sion­ate fan of sprint-rac­ing. He con­tin­ued to breed Hob­bies at Tutbury, the royal stud, and col­lected Tur­co­man and Bar­bary horses through both pur­chase and diplo­matic gift. For ex­am­ple, in a let­ter quoted by Mackay-Smith and dated Nov. 9, 1637, the Arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury wrote that an Am­bas­sador from Tu­nisia had just ar­rived in London with gifts for the King, in­clud­ing four Bar­bary stal­lions. Th­ese ap­pear in the ex­tended pedi­grees of Thor­ough­breds as “Morocco horses.”

Then in the decades from 1640 to 1660 came the dev­as­ta­tions of the English Civil War, which forced Catholic Roy­al­ists into ex­ile and cul­mi­nated in the be­head­ing of Charles I. A sec­ond Cromwell---the in­domitable Oliver, nick­named “Old Iron­sides”---led a “new model army” to re­peated de­ci­sive vic­to­ries over Roy­al­ist forces, so that by mid­cen­tury all the most fa­mous English studs had been de­stroyed. In 1644, Cromwell’s men cap­tured and razed Helm­s­ley Cas­tle in North York­shire, whose Hobby mares had been for gen­er­a­tions one of the great­est sources of speed. In the same year, Wil­liam Cavendish (the Duke of New­cas­tle) fled to Hol­land, abandoning his Wel­beck stud with its valu­able col­lec­tion of English Run­ning-Horse mares. In 1648 a third im­por­tant breed­ing es­tab­lish­ment, the Walling­ton stud owned by the Earl of Fen­wick, was de­stroyed and its mares scat­tered by Cromwell’s ma­raud­ing sol­diers. Fi­nally in 1650 the Tutbury royal stud it­self was con­fis­cated by Par­lia­ment and its price­less herd of brood­mares dis­persed.

Mackay-Smith doc­u­ments the re­vival of English rac­ing that came about almost im­me­di­ately af­ter­ward as noth­ing short of mirac­u­lous: “Iron­i­cally,” he writes, “the first per­son to re­verse the trend in the mis­for­tunes of the breed was the man who be­gan them, Lord Fair­fax.” Fair­fax had been Oliver Cromwell’s gen­eral of cavalry, and in 1651 Par­lia­ment gave him the Helm­s­ley es­tate. Once in pos­ses­sion, Fair­fax--who knew very well the value of the Helm­s­ley Hob­bies---mated a stal­lion called The Old Morocco Barb to a blaze-faced Hobby-bred mare called Old Bald Peg.

At almost the same mo­ment, James D’Arcy, Sr., a rac­ing afi­cionado who knew the value of the royal mares, brought some of them from the Tutbury dis­per­sal to his breed­ing farm Sed­bury, which lay near the Helm­s­ley es­tate in York­shire in the very area in the north of Eng­land that had al­ways been the heart of Bri­tish race breed­ing. Upon his fa­ther’s death in 1758, James D’Arcy, Jr., in­her­ited the es­tab­lish­ment, which for the next six decades stood as the most im­por­tant rac­ing stud in Eng­land. Doc­u­ments sug­gest that D’Arcy kept up­wards of 100 brood­mares; this made the farm an eco­nomic pow­er­house, but more im­por­tant from our per­spec­tive it pro­vided the op­por­tu­nity for “ex­per­i­men­tal” or out­cross breed­ings, which are cru­cial in bring­ing to light ge­netic po­ten­tial la­tent in a blood­line. Large num­bers of brood­mares are es­sen­tial to the es­tab­lish­ment of any new breed.

To hop ahead a lit­tle bit in our story, to the cover of the Old Morocco Barb, Old Bald Peg pro­duced a filly listed in

the Thor­ough­bred Gen­eral Stud Book as “The Old Morocco Mare.” Fair­fax and D’Arcy knew each other and of­ten traded breed­ings---thus in­creas­ing their menu of choices and mul­ti­ply­ing the chance of pro­duc­ing su­pe­rior foals. In 1670, to the cover of D’Arcy’s Yel­low Turk, the Old Morocco Mare pro­duced a colt named Spanker. As a stal­lion, Spanker be­came an out­stand­ing race­horse, “the best horse at New­mar­ket in the reign of Charles II.”

But per­spi­ca­cious breed­ing and the preser­va­tion of di­verse mare blood­lines are only part of the story of the ori­gin of the Thor­ough­bred. There is also the mat­ter of per­for­mance test­ing, which we need to look into be­fore we can fully un­der­stand what makes the Thor­ough­bred great.


More than 1,000 years be­fore the restora­tion of the Bri­tish monar­chy in the per­son of Charles II, of­fi­cers of the Ro­man army had hunted deer on horse­back. As the Ro­man con­quest of Eng­land faded into the Mid­dle Ages, the landed no­bil­ity took deer cours­ing as their ex­clu­sive priv­i­lege. In the time of Henry VIII and El­iz­a­beth I, cours­ing after ac­tual stags was largely re­placed by “hunt races,” in which half a dozen horses com­peted in “heats” of from six to 12 miles. Three or four such heats would be run upon a sin­gle day, the win­ner be­ing de­cided by best-of-three or else a point sys­tem re­flect­ing the or­der of fin­ish in each heat.

The pop­u­lar­ity of th­ese races came to be greatly over­shad­owed dur­ing the reigns of Charles I and James I, who spon­sored and en­joyed sprint-races that were open to any horse and rider.

It is not pos­si­ble for any horse, of any breed­ing, to run at top speed for 12 to 16 miles. As dis­tance and weight in­crease, speed must drop. But Charles was not look­ing for speed; he was look­ing for “try,” “heart” and phys­i­o­log­i­cal stamina.

Short-course rac­ing drew enor­mous crowds and con­sid­er­able bet­ting in­ter­est. As we have seen, Hob­bies and the Hobby-Barb or Hobby-Tur­co­man crosses called “English run­ning horses” were suc­cess­ful at this sport. They were not at all suit­able for long-dis­tance hunt rac­ing, even con­sid­er­ing that the av­er­age speed of hunt races was much slower.

The Bri­tish peo­ple had ex­pe­ri­enced a decade of chaos and de­struc­tion dur­ing the English Civil War. There was to be no respite, how­ever, as by 1660--the year when Charles of­fi­cially re­gained the English throne---he was al­ready em­broiled in a se­ries of wars against the Dutch. Charles was acutely aware that his fa­ther had lost his king­dom---not to men­tion his head---be­cause Oliver Cromwell pos­sessed bet­ter and more nu­mer­ous cavalry, and the young king was not in­clined to per­mit a sec­ond de­feat at the hands of the Dutch. Early in his reign there­fore, Charles turned his mind to im­prov­ing his cavalry, and he came up with a novel and bril­liant plan.

In point of fact, nei­ther type of Bri­tish race­horse then in ex­is­tence was ex­actly suited to the needs of the cavalry. Like hunt-rac­ers, cavalry horses of­ten had to gal­lop dis­tances much greater than a quar­ter-mile. How­ever, to out­flank an en­emy, they some­times also needed burst­ing speed. There were good horses in Eng­land, Charles knew ---par­tic­u­larly those with Tur­co­man blood---who could carry speed over a dis­tance of ground. He re­al­ized that what was lack­ing in his king­dom was not so much good blood­stock as a venue that would re­ward the “strong and use­ful” horses he was look­ing for.

His first act was to build the venue. After sur­vey­ing a re­cently ac­quired tract of land at New­mar­ket, the King or­dered two race­courses to be laid out there: the “New Round Heate” mea­sur­ing three miles, six fur­longs, and 93 yards, and the “Course” used for runoffs mea­sur­ing four miles, one fur­long, 138 yards. Through the rest of his reign, Charles’ fre­quent pres­ence at New­mar­ket en­sured in­ter­est in th­ese new “mid­dle dis­tance” races and moved the epi­cen­ter of Bri­tish breed­ing south from Northum­ber­land and York­shire to Suf­folk, only 65 miles from London.

An ex­cel­lent rider, Charles had been schooled from boy­hood by none other than the re­doubtable Wil­liam Cavendish, Duke of New­cas­tle. The older man had rid­den many hun­dreds of races, and Charles like­wise came to great skill, jock­ey­ing his own horses to many wins in both sprint-races and hunt-cour­ses. For ex­am­ple, Mackay-Smith quotes Sir Robert Carr, who in 1675 spent a day at New­mar­ket, re­port­ing that “His majestie Rode him­self three heats and a course and won the Plate, all four [races] were hard and nere run, and I doe as­sure you the King won by good Horse­man­ship.” Charles was thus no nabob but an ex­pert and ex­pe­ri­enced horse­man fully cog­nizant, as he wrote the “ar­ti­cles” or rules for mid­dledis­tance rac­ing, of the de­mand he would be mak­ing upon horses, breed­ers and jock­eys alike.

Those de­mands are almost un­be­liev­able by to­day’s stan­dards. The most im­por­tant were:

• Each horse was re­quired to run three heats, each ap­prox­i­mately 3½ miles long.

• Each horse would carry 12 stone (168 pounds), “ex­clud­ing bri­dle and sad­dle.” (This is about 18 pounds heav­ier than the heav­i­est weight im­posed on any mod­ern race­horse and 42 pounds heav­ier than any horse bears in the Ken­tucky Derby.)

• The horses would be given a halfhour to rest and “rub” be­tween heats.

• If no clear win­ner emerged after three heats, a fourth heat of about 4¼ miles would be run to de­cide the win­ner.

Note that the heats that com­prised th­ese con­tests, which were called “King’s Plates,” were all run upon a sin­gle day, with ev­ery horse re­quired to run some 12 to 16 miles in to­tal, while bear­ing weight equiv­a­lent to a man in half-ar­mor with full mil­i­tary kit.

It is not pos­si­ble for any horse, of any breed­ing, to run at top speed for such dis­tances; as dis­tance and weight in­crease, speed must drop. But Charles was not look­ing for speed; he was look­ing for “try,” “heart” and phys­i­o­log­i­cal stamina. He en­joyed his new, reg­u­lar­ized form of mid­dle-dis­tance horserac­ing, but he in­tended to ben­e­fit from its in­evitable side ef­fect---the wide­spread pro­duc­tion of “strong and use­ful” horses that could out­pace an en­emy, even when mounted by ar­mored sol­diers.

If this does not sound like to­day’s Thor­ough­bred, it shouldn’t. In Charles’ time King’s Plates were of­fered not only at New­mar­ket but at 20 other tracks that came to be built for the pur­pose in Eng­land and Scot­land. For a cen­tury after Charles’ death, King’s Plates con­tin­ued to be the most pres­ti­gious

con­tests, whose win­ners were listed at the top of the Bri­tish rac­ing cal­en­dar. Dur­ing this 100-year pe­riod, the blood of many Tur­co­man and Tur­co­manAra­bian sires en­tered the breed, con­fer­ring on the Thor­ough­bred the “bot­tom” that is its most out­stand­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic and the pri­mary source of its in­cred­i­ble ath­leti­cism.

While it is true that “bot­tom” and “heart” make for great­ness in an open jumper, a three-day even­ter or a cavalry of­fi­cer’s mount, they do not win races. De­spite the pres­tige of King’s Plate rac­ing, al­ready in the first decades of the 18th cen­tury new horses had come upon the scene, the most fa­mous of which were Fly­ing Childers (foaled 1715) and Regulus (1739) who went long ca­reers un­beaten. Their run­away vic­to­ries made Bri­tish breed­ers re­al­ize that it is speed, not stamina, that wins a horser­ace. “This,” writes Mackay-Smith, “led to a mount­ing de­mand for lower weights, shorter dis­tances, fewer heats and younger horses.”

Over the next 50 years, rac­ing venues changed to meet this de­mand. From 1776, with the in­cep­tion of the Don­caster St. Leger at only two miles, we en­ter the mod­ern era of “futurity” races, those open to horses younger than 5, who have not yet reached phys­i­cal ma­tu­rity. The tracks were not only much shorter, they were also made oval and ab­so­lutely level. Thus in 1779 and 1780 came the Ep­som Oaks and the Ep­som Derby, at a mere 1½ miles. The fash­ion in Amer­ica lagged about a cen­tury be­hind, with the es­tab­lish­ment of the Bel­mont and Preak­ness Stakes and the Ken­tucky Derby com­ing in the last quar­ter of the 19th cen­tury. Heat rac­ing’s last gasp oc­curred after the Civil War in Amer­ica, too.

A bi­ol­o­gist would view the mid­dledis­tance heat rac­ing pro­moted by

Charles II as a set of “se­lec­tive con­di­tions” that fa­vor horses hav­ing cer­tain char­ac­ter­is­tics: tall, strong horses with great stamina but pos­sessed of only a mod­icum of speed. Shorter race dis­tances re­quired speed­ier horses, and this de­manded con­tin­ual in­fu­sions of Hobby blood sup­plied through the distaff side of the pedi­gree.


Be­sides the Hobby and the English Run­ning-Horse, sev­eral other types of horses with rac­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties were avail­able in Europe be­gin­ning in the reign of Henry VIII. Th­ese in­cluded Barbs from North Africa and Tur­co­man horses from the east­ern re­gions of the Ot­toman Em­pire. Of the two, the Barbs ar­rived in Eng­land ear­lier and in greater num­bers. They were not es­teemed for beauty, but 16th and 17th cen­tury masters of the manège, in­clud­ing An­toine de Plu­vinel and the Duke of New­cas­tle, val­ued them for their ap­ti­tude for col­lec­tion and High School airs. Barbs of­ten had “loud” patchy col­oration, wide blazes, and jagged high white mark­ings upon the legs, and when study­ing old Thor­ough­bred pedi­grees, Barb in­flu­ence can rea­son­ably be as­sumed when the an­i­mal bears a name such as Cream Cheeks, White Legs or Old Bald Peg.

By con­trast, the pure­bred “Asil” Ara­bian horse was vir­tu­ally un­known in Europe or Eng­land un­til the 18th cen­tury. After the cap­ture of Aleppo in 1516, the Ot­toman sul­tans strictly for­bade ex­port of the Be­douins’ price­less Asils. The Markham “Ara­bian,” sold to James I, is the ear­li­est “Ara­bian”

men­tioned in the Gen­eral Stud Book for the Thor­ough­bred horse. The Duke of New­cas­tle, who ac­tu­ally saw the an­i­mal, gave this re­port in 1657:

“I never saw any but one of Th­ese Horses, which Mr. John Markham, a Mer­chant, brought Over and said, He was a Right Ara­bian: He was a Bay, but a Lit­tle Horse, and no Rar­ity for Shape; for I have seen Many English Horses farr Finer. Mr. Markham sold him to King James for Five Hun­dred Pounds; and be­ing Trained up for a Course, when he came to Run, ev­ery Horse beat him.”

There is good rea­son to think that the Duke doubted the horse was a pure­bred, for he also states, “I have been Told by many Gen­tle­men of Credit … That the Price of Right Ara­bi­ans is, One Thou­sand, Two Thou­sand, and Three Thou­sand Pounds a Horse (an In­tol­er­a­ble, and an In­cred­i­ble Price)”--but it ap­pears that the King got no bar­gain ei­ther way. While the Ara­bian horse can con­trib­ute re­fine­ment, spirit, in­tel­li­gence, tough­ness and en­durance ca­pa­bil­ity to a blood­line, it does not con­fer ei­ther short or mid­dledis­tance speed.

The third horse of Mid­dle East­ern prove­nance avail­able to English breed­ers was the Tur­co­man, which is ac­tu­ally not a “breed” but a group of re­lated blood­lines bred by Turkmene tribes liv­ing in what is now Azer­bai­jan, Turk­menistan, Uzbek­istan, Afghanista­n and north­ern Iran. Con­for­ma­tion­ally, there can be no ques­tion that Thor­ough­breds far more strongly re­sem­ble Tur­co­man horses of what­ever strain than they do Ara­bi­ans. This is for good rea­son: While there may be a small per­cent­age of ac­tual Asil blood in the Thor­ough­bred (DNA stud­ies so far in­di­cate none at all), there is a very high per­cent­age of Tur­co­man, so that, in sim­plest terms, it would be fair to de­scribe the Thor­ough­bred as be­ing a cross of Tur­co­man sires upon mares of Hobby or Hobby/Barb ex­trac­tion.

Among Mus­lim rulers, the giv­ing of fine horses as gifts is an an­cient tra­di­tion, and in the high days of the Ot­toman Em­pire viziers and sul­tans main­tained stud farms specif­i­cally for the pro­duc­tion of horses with speed, spirit, and of­ten, ex­quis­ite beauty. Lady Went­worth, in her heav­ily re­searched 1938 vol­ume Thor­ough­bred Rac­ing Stock, cites 16th- and 17th-cen­tury texts show­ing that the Em­per­ors of Morocco bred diplo­matic gifts from part-Ara­bian horses. A dash of Ara­bian was prob­a­bly added like­wise to “diplo­matic” strains of Tur­co­mans, so that some Tur­co­man horses that ar­rived in Eng­land dur­ing the 17th and early 18th cen­turies might have had a small per­cent­age of Asil in their pedi­gree. Con­tem­po­rary por­traits of Bri­tish race­horses by painters such as John Woot­ton and George Stubbs at­test to the re­fine­ment and high qual­ity of horses re­ferred to as “Turks.”

If there were no true Ara­bi­ans in Eng­land at the time, why then do we find so many “Ara­bian” horses named in the first vol­ume of the Thor­ough­bred Gen­eral Stud Book? The sim­ple rea­son is eco­nomics: Such was the rep­u­ta­tion of the “in­tol­er­a­bly ex­pen­sive” Ara­bian that all a seller or stud man­ager needed to do was to in­sin­u­ate Ara­bian an­ces­try, and he would find that he could com­mand a price 10 times higher. Fur­ther, a no­ble­man could do this honor­ably, be­cause there prob­a­bly was some Ara­bian blood in the back­ground of many Tur­co­mans. The paint­ings that wealthy own­ers com­mis­sioned served as a bit of ad­di­tional pro­pa­ganda: Woot­ton and Stubbs both fre­quently por­trayed noble­men's horses held by mus­ta­chioed grooms cos­tumed as Be­douins, and as Judy Eger­ton ob­serves in her com­men­tary to George Stubbs, 1724-1806, “the idea of al­lud­ing to the Ara­bian blood of a horse by por­tray­ing it with an ev­i­dently Ara­bian groom goes back at least to Woot­ton, e.g., in such pic­tures as ‘The By­er­ley Turk with a Groom.’” In the minds of Bri­tish breed­ers, qual­ity equated to rac­ing abil­ity, and it took a cen­tury be­fore most re­al­ized that crosses with Ara­bian horses were ac­tu­ally caus­ing their pro­duce to run slower.

Only three horses bear­ing a high per­cent­age of Asil blood seem to have been smug­gled out of Aleppo dur­ing the 18th cen­tury. Get­ting them out was dif­fi­cult, first be­cause such horses were se­questered and sim­ply not placed within reach of most Euro­pean noble­men, diplo­mats, gen­tle­men or mer­chants re­sid­ing or do­ing business in the Ot­toman Em­pire. The penalty for smug­gling was death. Nonethe­less, two horses with un­ques­tion­ably Ara­bian con­for­ma­tion were brought into Eng­land through the ef­forts of “Turkey mer­chant” Nathaniel Har­ley: the Ox­ford Dun Ara­bian and the Blood­yShoul­dered Ara­bian. Of the lat­ter, Har­ley wrote that “he is of great Spirit but no great speed; tho’ … wou’d soon learn any­thing in the manège.” When put to Turkmene-Hobby-Barb mares, this horse sired a few mid­dle-dis­tance win­ners. He was fa­mous in his day mainly for his ex­otic ap­pear­ance.

The third horse, the Dar­ley “Ara­bian,” is another mat­ter en­tirely, for about 90 per­cent of present-day Thor­ough­breds trace in tail-male line to this stal­lion. The Dar­ley was almost cer­tainly not a pure­bred but rather a Tur­co­man-Ara­bian cross of the “diplo­matic” strain. Stand­ing a full 15 hands---sev­eral inches taller than most pure­bred Ara­bi­ans then or now---he was a dark bay of ex­quis­ite qual­ity. Thomas Dar­ley, the “Turkey mer­chant” who ex­ported him, seems to have had no par­tic­u­lar le­gal dif­fi­culty get­ting the horse on ship­board, and this is another clue in­di­cat­ing that the stal­lion, while un­doubt­edly valu­able, was not Asil. In­ter­est­ingly, ex­cept for pro­duc­ing Devon­shire Fly­ing Childers and Bartlett’s Bleed­ing Childers (out of the “tap­root” mare Betty Leedes; see ex­tended pedi­grees page 58), the Dar­ley’s record as a sire of race­horses was not im­pres­sive.


The English Jockey Club de­fines a Thor­ough­bred as a horse who de­scends from one or more of the fol­low­ing three stal­lions: Matchem (foaled 1748, trac­ing back to the Godol­phin “Ara­bian”); Herod (orig­i­nally called “King Herod,” foaled 1758, trac­ing back to the By­er­ley Turk); or Eclipse (foaled 1764, trac­ing back to the Dar­ley “Ara­bian”). No­tice that all of th­ese horses were born after the era of King’s Plate rac­ing. They were born a cen­tury after Spanker, “the best horse at New­mar­ket dur­ing the reign of Charles II.”

The By­er­ley Turk was foaled some­time in the 1680s and was at stud be­tween 1691 and 1702. He be­longed to a Cap­tain Robert By­er­ley and be­fore be­ing put to stud served in bat­tle in Wales and Ire­land. En­tirely Bri­tish-bred and not an im­ported horse, he was a de­scen­dant of the tap­root stal­lion Place’s White Turk (see page 58). Woot­ton’s por­trait of him (with “Be­douin” groom) shows a well-con­formed horse with all the points typ­i­cal of the Tur­co­man: hard, dry “bone”; medium-length back; long, slop­ing hindquar­ters; well­carved head, fine throat­latch and flat neck with some arch to it. His­to­rian Mackay-Smith par­tic­u­larly points to high withers and re­mark­ably long, slop­ing shoul­ders that “root” far to the rear, almost meet­ing the mus­cles of the haunch, which, pass­ing for­ward, like­wise root near the cen­ter of the back. A horse with this con­for­ma­tion will cer­tainly have a long stride-length and plenty of power for speed.

The Dar­ley “Ara­bian” en­ters next in time. Im­ported in 1704 as a 6 year old, this stal­lion was, as pre­vi­ously men­tioned, largely of Turkmene ex­trac­tion. Nonethe­less, he prob­a­bly car­ried one or more Ara­bian crosses, and by ev­ery re­port, he was a beau­ti­ful horse. In Woot­ton’s por­trait, once again we see con­for­ma­tion re­plete with Turkmene char­ac­ter­is­tics, in­clud­ing the long, slop­ing shoul­der, long pelvis and ex­cel­lent limbs and hoofs, but with a some­what shorter back, more level croup and higher tail-car­riage than pos­sessed by Cap­tain By­er­ley’s fa­mous horse. It ap­pears that the early years of the 18th cen­tury were a high pe­riod for equine qual­ity, for the Dar­ley was by no means the only exquisitel­y beau­ti­ful stal­lion of his day (see “Fly­ing Childers and Whistle­jacket,” page 58).

The last and most in­flu­en­tial of the three Thor­ough­bred “found­ing sires” was the Godol­phin “Ara­bian,” who lived from 1724 to 1753. He was brown-bay in color with a lit­tle white on both hind feet and stood 14 hands, 1 ½ inches at the withers. The best con­tem­po­rary de­scrip­tion of this stal­lion was writ­ten by vet­eri­nar­ian Wil­liam Os­mer:

“Ac­cord­ing to th­ese [biome­chan­i­cal] prin­ci­ples, there never was a horse…. so well en­ti­tled to get rac­ers as the Godol­phin Ara­bian: for, who­ever has seen this horse must re­mem­ber, that his shoul­ders were deeper and lay fur­ther into his back, than any horse ever yet seen. Be­hind the shoul­ders, there was but a very small space ere the mus­cles of his loins rose ex­ceed­ing high, broad and ex­panded, which were in­serted into his quarters with greater strength and power than in any horse, I be­lieve, ever yet seen of his di­men­sions.”

Cir­cum­stan­tial ev­i­dence com­piled by Mackay-Smith in­di­cates that the Godol­phin was im­ported by Ed­ward Coke, wealthy owner of a stud farm in Der­byshire, who ac­quired him in France, prob­a­bly from the Duke of Lor­raine. Rep­re­sent­ing once again the “diplo­matic” strain of Turkmene horses, the stal­lion was prob­a­bly bred by the Turk­ish Sul­tan Ahmed III and ac­quired by the Duke through his kin at the Aus­trian court. Any story about such a valu­able an­i­mal pulling a cart in the streets of Paris can thus safely be re­garded as myth. After Coke’s pre­ma­ture death, the Earl of Godol­phin ac­quired the stal­lion (or his son; see “Images of the Three Found­ing Stal­lions,” page 54) and kept this horse at stud for the rest of his life. Much in con­trast to the Dar­ley and By­er­ley, the Godol­phin’s ca­reer at stud is re­plete with the names of cham­pi­ons, some of whom we will have the plea­sure of study­ing in our next in­stall­ment, which fo­cuses on events in Thor­ough­bred his­tory after 1750.

Next: Matchem, Herod and Eclipse

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