A brief history of the Thoroughbred
Sorting fact from myth in the origins of the world’s greatest equine athlete.
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.
ENGLISH RACING BEFORE THOROUGHBREDS
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 DISRUPTIONS OF THE REFORMATION AND THE ENGLISH CIVIL WAR
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.
CHARLES II AND PERFORMANCE TESTING
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.
WHAT’S IN A NAME? PUREBRED ARABIANS A RARITY
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.
WHAT WERE THE THREE FOUNDING SIRES?
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