History of the Thoroughbred Horse

History of the Thoroughbred Horse

Breed Facts

The development of flat racing

Since the early 12th Century, England has had competitive horse racing on the flat. As the sport grew, rich patrons began to develop their own studs to improve their racehorses. In the 18th Century horseracing became the place to be seen and compete, with Charles II building his stud and racing stables in Newmarket. The Jockey Club was formed, creating the rules of racing as well as providing an exclusive gentlemen’s club for the upper classes.

As the need to win increased, prize pots expanded and the prestigious classic races were invented, rich patrons looked for new blood to improve the speed and stamina of their bloodstock. Many stallions were imported, and studs started to offer covering services – where other owners could have their mares put in foal to champion stallions. This lead to the creation of a records system, so breeders and owners could research horses in training and at stud.

The General Stud book

Although the breed had been slowly developing under its own devices, known as “bred” horses, it wasn’t until the 1791 publication of the first General Stud Book that the breed started to be widely recorded with horses registered. Pulling together all of the breeding records of owners, it provided a complete list of all the horses imported, mares who had been covered, and details on the foals produced. Horses registered could then qualify for classic races, and prestigious race meetings.

Over 160 stallions of Turk, Barb and Arabian blood were imported and helped create the breed named “Thoroughbred”. Mares were also imported, but many British breeds were used who had previously raced. This included hunters, carriage horses and larger Native breeds. The focus was however always on the Sire Lines that were developing, with breeders researching and using stallions that improved their bloodstock. Over time, three stallions have been identified as the Foundation Sires of the thoroughbred, with the majority of all racehorses coming from their genetic lines. They are named after their owners: the Byerley Turk; the Darley Arabian; and the Godolphin Arabian.

The Byerley Turk

This dark brown stallion was captured by Captain Robert Byerley in 1688 in the siege of Buda in Hungary. Used as a war horse, he taken to Ireland as part of King Williams War. The Byerley Turk was entered in a race in Down Royal, winning the top prize of a Silver Bell. Not satisfied with just winning, he was also used in the Battle of the Boyne. Eventually the Captain returned the horse to his estate in County Durham to stand at stud. He covered a number of “bred” mares, producing his most successful son Basto in 1702.

As well as his potent son Jigg, Byerley Turk mares started many of the most influential mare lines in the stud book. Famous horses who come from his line include: Herod, champions sire 8 times in the UK; Diomed, the first Derby winner; Lexington, one of the most influential American stallions; The Tetrarch, the spotted wonder; and, Ahonoora, sire of Derby and Oaks winners. His line is now sidelined in the stud book, with sons mainly standing in Europe.

The Godolphin Arabian

Imported by Mr Edward Coke from France in 1729, he is believed to have come from the stables of the Duke of Lorraine. Many myths surround the stallion, but it is likely he was given to the King of France by the Bey of Tunis. Nicknamed Shami, he was headstrong and difficult to keep, as a result he fell into poor condition. Edward Coke stood the horse at stud, describing him as an Arabian. There he covered the fickle mare Roxana who produced a beautiful son named Lath. Lath went onto to be the best racehorse of his day, establishing the Godolphin Arabian as a top racing sire.

Upon the untimely death of Coke, Shami was eventually acquired by his friend the second Earl of Godolphin. The stallion was moved to the Gog Magog Hills in Cambridgeshire, just outside of Newmarket. A small, beautiful bay, no one is sure whether he was a Barb or an Arabian. He died at 29 years of age, and his grave can still be found on the Gog Magog golf course.

Shami went on to sire even more successful sons, which had a huge influence on the breed. Important racehorses from his line include: Matchem, influential on the development of the thoroughbred sire and dam lines ; Man O War, one of the greatest racehorse and sire’s of all time; Seabiscuit, the little horse that could; and, Tiznow, the dual Breeders’ Cup Classic winner.

The Darley Arabian

While on a trade mission to Aleppo the British Consul, Thomas Darley, noticed the young bay colt in a Bedouin herd. Despite paying for the animal, he was forced to smuggle him out of the country after the Sheikh who bred him reneged on the deal. Reportedly from the Muniqui strain of Arabians, he was sent to stud when he came of age. Staying with the Darley family all his life, he was mainly used to cover their own mares. He went onto to produce a number of top quality runners including the infamous Flying Childers. His full brother Bartlett’s Childers went on to outshine him at Stud, creating new breeds across the sea.

It was through his sons that the Darley Arabian can now be traced in 95% of all modern thoroughbreds. Notable runners from his line include: Eclipse, the unbeaten super horse of the 18th Century; St Simon, the racing phenomenon and Champion sire; Northern Dancer, the most influential International stallion of the 20th Century; and, Frankel, the highest rated racehorse of all time.

Thoroughbreds spread across the globe

Throughout the 17th Century, thoroughbreds started to be exported to the United States where racing was becoming popular. Messenger and Diomed were early exports, and not only helped to develop the thoroughbred overseas but their lines were used to create new breeds including the Quarter Horse and Standardbred.

France and Italy imported thoroughbreds during the 19th Century. Breeders there focused on bloodlines, with the most famous being Frederico Tesio. Turning breeding into a science, he produced Nearco, a hugely dominant sire who went on to be an incredibly influential sire only eclipsed by his grandson, Northern Dancer.

Throughout the 19th Century English Thoroughbreds were imported to every corner of the globe. They helped develop racing, as well as improve native breeds.

Thoroughbred speed and stamina also helped develop Warmblood and Sports Horse breeds across Europe. Today, as well as being the foundation of many sporting breeds, they also compete at every level and event in the Equestrian world.



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