British Thoroughbred Racing History

a modern Arabian

One of the more challenging aspects of writing historical romance is the amount of research one must do. It is not uncommon to spend 8 hours researching a fact that in less than a paragraph in the book. However, one must do it. Recently, I add the element of thoroughbred racing to a novella I was writing. I have always said that if I hit the lottery, I was going to move to KY and raise thoroughbreds. So, finding out about thoroughbreds was time consuming but oh, so exciting. Did you know that the origins of modern racing go back to the Crusades. Between the 12th and 16th centuries, Arab stallions were imported into England and mated with English mares to breed in speed and endurance.
Professional horse racing sprang to life in the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714). By 1750, racing’s elite formed the Jockey Club at Newmarket. The Jockey Club still exercises complete control of English racing.
Since 1814, five races for 3-year-olds have been designated as “Classics”: The English Triple Crown, which includes the Epsom Derby, the 2000 Guineas, and the St. Leger Stakes, is open to both male and female horses. The Epsom Oaks and the 1000 Guineas is only for fillies.

Volume 6 of the General Stud Book, published in London in 1857.

Besides writing rules for racing, the Jockey Club designed steps to regulate horse breeding. James Weatherby traced the complete family history (pedigree) of every horse racing in England. In 1791, The Introduction to the General Stud Book was published. By the early 1800s only horses descended from those listed in the General Stud book could be called “thoroughbreds.”
Now this is the amazing fact!!! Thoroughbreds are so inbred that the pedigree of every single horse can be traced back to to one of three stallions, which are referred to as the “foundation sires.” These stallions are Byerley Turk (foaled c.1679); the Darley Arabian (foaled c.1700), and Godolphin Arabian (foaled c. 1724).

The three founding fathers of the turf

Following the family tree of the Godolphin Arabian, the Byerley Turk and the Darley Arabian is rather like compiling a ‘who’s who’ of racing champions!

The Godolphin Arabian

  • Foaled about 1724
  • Probably exported from Yemen via Syria to the stud of the Bey of Tunis
  • Initially given to Louis XV of France in 1730, he was then imported to Britain
  • Sired the best racehorse of the day, called Lath
  • The Godolphin Arabian’s line hasn’t won the Derby since Santa Claus in 1964, and has recently been overshadowed by the Darley Arabian’s descendants

The Byerley Turk, one of the progenitors of the Thoroughbred breed, may have been a Turkoman horse.

The Byerley Turk

  • Foaled about 1680
  • His line includes Herod, foaled in 1758, who was leading sire eight times
  • Descendent Highflyer and his sons were champion stallions 23 times in 25 years
  • The Byerley Turk’s line now has much less influence than that of the Darley Arabian

The Darley Arabian

  • Foaled about 1700
  • Amongst others, he sired Bartlett’s Childers whose great grandson was Eclipse
  • Over 80% of modern racehorses can trace their descent to Eclipse, including the great Canadian stallion Northern Dancer

The golden story of Eclipse

A descendent of the Darley Arabian, Eclipse was foaled in 1764, the year of the great eclipse of the sun. He won 18 races, never appearing the least bit stretched. Owners were reluctant to put their horses up against him and eight of his races were declared walkovers!

Eclipse retired to stud in 1771 and sired three Derby winners but his ability to sire offspring that were well adapted to the new shorter races for two and three year olds ensured him a place in the racing history books.

However, due to terrific competition from Herod and the Byerley Turk line, Eclipse was never actually declared champion.

After his death, Eclipse was dissected to try to work out the secret of his success – it was decided that his huge heart pumped blood around the body more effectively, while his back legs gave plenty of leverage. Powerful lungs completed the winning combination. His skeleton is still owned by the Royal Veterinary College and can be seen at the National Horseracing Museum in Newmarket.

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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