Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Thoroughbreds: a Short History of the Turf by Regina Jeffers

I'm delighted to welcome fellow author of historical romance, Regina Jeffers, to Fall in Love wit History. In a short series of guest posts with an animal theme, Regina posts about the history of the thoroughbred. 
Regina is a well-respected and highly qualified teacher, and a successful author. If you would like to know more about Regina's work here is the link to her website. But without further ado, over to my guest
G x
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 or face the wrath of history savvy readers. Recently, I added the element of thoroughbred racing to a novella entitled “His American Heartsong” (found in His: Two Regency Novellas). I have always said if I hit the lottery, I would move to Kentucky and raise thoroughbreds. So, finding out about thoroughbreds was time consuming, but oh, so exciting.
A modern thoroughbred horse
For example, did you know 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.
A modern Arab horse
In addition to writing rules for racing, the Jockey Club defined steps to regulate horse breeding. James Weatherby traced the complete family history (pedigree) of every horse to race in England. Weatherby served the Jockey Club as its Secretary in 1770. Between 1770 and 1805, he helped to lay the foundation for racehorse pedigrees. With the assistance of his nephews, The General Stud Book, a definitive record of the pedigrees of approximately 400 horses, which were seen as the foundation for all thoroughbred stock worldwide, was published in 1791. By the early 1800s only horses descended from those listed in the General Stud Book could be called “thoroughbreds.”
The General Stud Book
Published London, 1857
Now this is the amazing fact!!! Breed histories generally focus on 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
**Foaled about 1680

**His line includes
Descendent Highflyer and his sons were champion stallions 23 times in 25 years

The Byerley Turk
One of the progenitors of the modern thoroughbred
**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 Darley arabian
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. [Note by Grace: I have seen the sombre sight of Eclispe's skeletion. It is on display in the foyee of the main building at the RVC's site at Potters Bar. Even so, the skeleton has an elegance and vivacity that you would not credit bones with.]
The Thoroughbred Heritage website (which includes detailed lists of the sire lines for the three foundation sires) says of the “Historic Sires”: “Thoroughbreds descend in tail-male line to one of these stallions, upwards of 200 stallions, Arabians, Barbs, Turks, and others, were imported into England and are so noted in the General Stud Book. History has managed to overlook many of these early sires, despite the fact that some wielded an even more profound influence on the breed than any one of the three foundation sires. Some, such as the Darcy White Turk had male lines that survived five and six generations and produced many important runners and sires before becoming extinct in direct male descent. Others, such as Fairfax’s Morocco Barb, survive in pedigrees through a single son or daughter, but their blood still runs deep in the Thoroughbred.”


  1. I am always saddened by the emphasis on sire lines in Thoroughbred pedigrees. These famous three "foundation" sires did not do all the work on their own! The racing mares of the British Isles have only recently begun to be acknowledged as equal to these Orientals in the origins of racing stock. Many of them were Irish or Scottish or (dare I say it) Cumbrian.

    1. Thanks for sharing the information on the mares, Sue. I am so fascinated with this subject.
      I appreciate your reading the post.

    2. As Barbara was a guest on my blog on Monday with a delightful post on Queen Elizabeth and the Sea Beggars, it was great to be a part of "The Fall in Love with History" blog today.

  2. This is my great pleasure to visit your website and to enjoy your excellent post here. Thank you for sharing with us.

    Thoroughbred Analytics


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