There can be few of the world’s horse breeds that do not owe their existence to the desert-bred Oriental horses known today as the Arabian. Without the importation of Barb, Turk and Arab blood, the world’s ‘Super-horse’, the English thoroughbred, would not exist.
Racing had flourished in England in one form or another for centuries prior to the dawning of this ultimate equine athlete. The horses used were the native ‘running horses’, produced in the main from galloways and the Irish hobby, with the addition of Flemish, Spanish and Belgian blood. In the latter part of the seventeenth century, the so-called Oriental horses were imported in large numbers – although this influence may have already begun much earlier when efforts were made to improve native stock.
Many of the English sovereigns were instrumental in improving the indigenous breeds. King John was a firm believer in the efficiency of Eastern blood and devoted a great deal of attention to his stud at Eltham. In the reign of Henry I, two horses were imported into England from Barbary, one being presented to the king and the other to the church of St. Andrews by Alexander I of Scotland. This is the first recorded instance of the importing of Oriental horses into Britain. Some authorities claimed that from these two stallions stemmed the English Thoroughbred. Youatt considered this to be ‘devoid of foundation’, but if they were Barbs or Arabians, they were of the appropriate breed from which racehorses could be produced.
Match racing began in the reign of Elizabeth I, but it took until the time of Henry VIII for breeding to improve. Blood of the high class English horses, which had fallen into foreign hands during the Wars of the Roses, was re-introduced and not only did Henry restore the Eltham stud to glory, he founded similar establishments at Windsor and Hampton Court. The master of the stud was titled the Keeper of the Barbary Horses, so clearly Henry also had a preference for such stock. The Barbs were crossed with horses he received from the Marquis of Mantua, a beneficiary of the Lancaster–York conflicts. He is reputed, for one fine English horse, to have declined an offer of its weight in silver.
Queen Elizabeth I had studs at Greenwich, Hampton Court, Windsor, St. Albans and Waltham, but only when James I came to the throne, did racing become recognized in England for the great sport it still is, centuries later. Its popularity was established earlier in Scotland and Queen Elizabeth it was who presented James with some racehorses long before he succeeded to the English throne.
Among his racehorses, James I included Arabians brought to England by Sir Thomas Esmond. One of these was the Markham Arabian, which he purchased for a price variously believed to be £200 or £500, but it seems that he was sold a dud, for the horse ran poorly and no records remain of his being the progenitor of any good stock.
During the reign of Charles I, the Duke of Buckingham acquired the Helmsley Turk, a much better proposition, for he sired a number of valuable offspring. According to some authorities, Charles II commanded Sir John Fenwick, his Master of Horse, to bring back the Royal Mares and some stallions from the Levant (Syria), thus increasing the influx of Oriental bloodlines. This is the explanation given in the General Stud Book for the Royal Mares mentioned in a considerable number of early Thoroughbred pedigrees. However, it seems far more likely that it was James D’Arcy, Master of the Royal Stud, who procured the mares from various sources. D’Arcy was contracted to supply King Charles with ‘twelve extraordinary good colts’ each year for the royal stud at Sedbury in Yorkshire. The Royal Mares, plus a few stallions, were dispersed through the country when the king died.
During the reign of William and Mary, many valuable Eastern horses were imported by the Crown. This was the time when the Byerley Turk arrived (see below).
Queen Anne was undeniably a racing monarch. She owned racehorses and ran them in her name; she also gave plates which were contested for in different parts of the kingdom. It was very soon after she came to the throne that the Darley Arabian (see below) came to these shores. Queen Anne instituted races at Ascot, in her park. The Darley Arabian’s fame at stud surpassed even that of the Leedes Arabian, sire of Betty Leedes, dam of Flying Childers, the fastest horse of his day over distance. No fewer than twenty-three stallions of Eastern blood came to England during Anne’s reign and it is from her period that breeding of the Thoroughbred appears to have been conducted upon more scientific principles than before.
Two hundred Oriental horses are listed in Volume II of the General Stud Book from 1721 - 59, one hundred and seventy-six being stallions. These included the three most influential in the subsequent development of the Thoroughbred – the Byerley Turk, the Darley Arabian and the Godolphin Arabian. All modern Thoroughbreds are descended from these three through the male line. There were other important Oriental stallions, but the influence of these, while still seen, is not in the male top line. For example, every grey Thoroughbred can trace its origins back to Alcock’s Arabian, and the Leedes Arabian can be found in more pedigrees than any other horse. The Lister Turk was taken at the siege of Buda (as was the Byerley Turk) and brought to England by the Duke of Berwick. He appears in the pedigree of Eclipse as the sire of Coneyskins, being also responsible for the celebrated horses Snake and Brisk. Hutton’s Bay Barb, sire of Blacklegs, is another Eastern sire in Eclipse’s bloodline.
The most important female influence on the development of the Thoroughbred is the Arabian foundation mare, Old Bald Peg, sired by the Unknown Arabian. Thousands of repeat crosses of this mare appear in the pedigrees of many famous racehorses, according to Lady Wentworth’s The Authentic Arabian.
There were no further infusions of Arab blood after 1770 and in 1773, James Weatherby was made keeper of the match book for the Jockey Club. In 1791, Weatherby’s (still the official agents of the Jockey Club) published An Introduction to a General Stud Book and in 1808, issued the first volume of the General Stud Book. A pattern of recording Thoroughbred breeding had been established. The modern GSB, still published by Weatherby’s, includes all pure-bred mares and their progeny as well as the pedigrees of both mares and sires.
It was not until 1821 that the word thoroughbred was first used in connection with the racehorse. The term appeared in the second volume of the General Stud Book, although as a distinct breed the English Thoroughbred did not establish itself until long afterwards, when crosses to the Arabian had ceased. Indeed, the increase in numbers and incredible worldwide spread of the Thoroughbred has really only come about in the last hundred years.
Thoroughbreds of the early nineteenth century were smaller than those of a century later. Doubt was expressed in the 1920s as to whether the then modern racehorse was as sound as his predecessor and in the opinion of some experienced trainers, when it came to stamina and constitution, the old horses were superior. It certainly would appear that horses running even in the late nineteenth century were expected to achieve more in public than they were a generation later.
When heat-running was in vogue, while the number of races a horse actually ran were not so many, the miles he was called upon to gallop were often a good deal more. For example: Eclipse, who won thirteen King’s plates, in eleven of which he carried twelve stone and in two, ten stone.
The Byerley Turk
A dark brown horse according to the painting by John Wootton and perhaps of bigger build than the Oriental horses being introduced to England in the seventeenth century, the Byerley Turk nevertheless had certain characteristics associated with the Arabian. He was the first of the three founding sires of the Thoroughbred to arrive.
According to legend, it was at the Battle of Buda in Hungary that Captain Robert Byerley acquired the believed eight-year-old from a captured Turkish officer. A serving officer in William of Orange's 6th Dragoon Guards, Captain Byerley was born in 1660, son of Colonel Anthony Byerley of Middridge Grange, Co. Durham, and had risen to the rank of colonel by the time he was twenty-eight. During King William’s War in Ireland in 1689, Robert Byerley used the stallion as his charger and also the following year at the Battle of the Boyne. There was time for leisure though. In the spring of 1690, at Down Royal in Northern Ireland, a race meeting was held and Captain Byerley’s steed won the top prize of a silver bell.
Captain Byerley was married in 1696 to the great-niece of prominent horse-breeder Lord Wharton, of Goldsborough Hall near Knaresborough, a property Mary later inherited. They moved to the estate and when he died in May 1714, Robert was buried there.
On Robert Byerley’s retirement, the Byerley Turk stood at stud, firstly at the family seat at Middridge Grange and after 1697, at Goldsborough Hall. He remained at stud into his twenties, his son Basto, the best-known racehorse and a good stallion in his own right, being foaled in1702. Bred by Sir William Ramsden, Basto was sold to the Duke of Devonshire. He stood at Chatsworth, the Duke’s seat, where he died in 1723. As with many of the Byerley Turk’s progeny, Basto was dark bay, almost black, and with no white markings, bore a marked resemblance to his sire.
The most influence in breeding terms was exerted by Jigg, another of the Byerley Turk's sons. Although considered of little importance until his son Partner began to achieve great success on the racecourse, it was Partner’s son Tartar who immortalized the line, as the sire of the renowned stallion and racehorse, Herod (1738). Jigg was also the sire of Robinson Crusoe, who sired Bucephalus, the winner of many plates and proclaimed the first horse of his time, as well as the dam of influential stallion Coneyskins.
The foundation mares of several Thoroughbred families owe their sire line to the Byerley Turk and his sons, in addition to a number of good racing mares which were greatly prized. However, that sire line continues down to comparatively few Thoroughbreds of today.
The Byerley Turk died in 1706 at Goldsborough hall. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Captain Byerley buried his old charger on the estate, as is widely believed.
The Darley Arabian
The second of the three dominant sires which founded the Thoroughbred breed. He was, from the painting by John Wootton, a fine bay stallion with a narrow blaze, two white hind socks and a white fetlock on the near fore.
Born in the Syrian desert outside Aleppo, the property of Sheikh Mirza II, the elegant bay yearling colt was bought by merchant and Her Majesty’s Consul to the Levant (Syria), Thomas Darley. That Darley bought the horse and he arrived in England in 1704 is historical fact; how he arrived and how much was paid for him is clouded in mystery.
According to one version of events, the price was three hundred gold sovereigns; in another it was a flintlock rifle. The story goes that, having paid for the colt, Darley was met by the sheikh’s reluctance to part with the best of his youngstock. Treating this with a typical Yorkshire ‘no-nonsense’ attitude, it is said that British sailors were commandeered by Darley to acquire the colt and smuggle him out by way of Smyrna.
The Darley Arabian’s original name was ‘Ras el Fedavi’ which translates as ‘The Headstrong One’ and he was, according to Darley, “immediately striking owing to his handsome appearance and exceedingly elegant carriage.” He was put to stud at Aldby Park in Yorkshire, seat of the Darley family, covering mares from probably 1705 until 1719. He remained there, it seems, until his death in 1730, at the ripe old age of thirty.
As the foundation stallion with the greatest influence on modern Thoroughbred bloodlines, he was responsible for the renowned Eclipse, who was never beaten on the racecourse, through his unraced son Bartlett’s or Bleeding Childers. The latter stood at his owner’s stud at Nutwith Coate near Masham in Yorkshire.
A previous mating of the Darley Arabian to Betty Leedes, orchestrated by Leonard Childers of Cantley Hall, Doncaster had produced the also unbeaten Flying Childers. Bought by the Duke of Devonshire, Flying Childers was supposed in the General Stud Book to have been ‘the fleetest horse that was ever trained in this or any other country’. He was also prolific and successful at stud. One son, Blaze, bred the influential trotting sire Old Shales, which went on to found the Hackney. Blaze’s great-grandson Messenger became a foundation sire for the American Standardbred and his successful racing daughter Miller’s Damsel later produced the supreme racehorse American Eclipse.
Another son of the Darley Arabian, Manica, is revered as a foundation sire of the modern Cleveland Bay, although it must be remembered that Clevelands have existed in the Cleveland Hills of Yorkshire since medieval times.
The Godolphin Arabian
Sometimes called the Godolphin Barb because he was believed to have come from Tunisia, on the Barbary Coast, portraits of him yet show the characteristic dished face and high tail carriage associated with the Arab. According to the Viscount de Manty, he had beautifully proportioned conformation, well let-down hocks and “unequalled lightness of forehand.” A ‘brown bay’ with a ‘reddish mottle’, he stood in the region of fifteen hands with white on his off-hind heel. He was powerful and short backed, and inclined to be headstrong.
Many are the legends surrounding this celebrated stallion, although the facts of his origins are few. He was brought to England by Edward Coke in 1728, that gentleman having connections with France and in particular with the Duke of Lorraine. It is therefore quite conceivable that Coke came by the stallion through the French court.
A highly coloured and detailed account of the stallion’s ‘adventures’ was written by M. Eugene Sue in his History of the Godolphin Arabian, and condensed in The Sporting Magazine of 1839. It seems doubtful, however, that Edward Coke discovered the horse being beaten whilst within the shafts of an overloaded wood or water cart at the foot of the Pont Neuf. Nevertheless it is possible he was in poor condition, since it is likely that he did indeed arrive in France as one of a contingent from the stud of the Bey of Tunis, and a ‘half-starved’ description might well have been applied after such a voyage. If he also had a questionable temperament, he could have been kept lean to aid his control.
The accounts of the Flying Childers mare, Roxana, rejecting the advances of her intended mate Hobgoblin, in favour of the teaser ‘Scham’, otherwise known as the Godolphin Arabian, are also included in M. Sue’s fables. One therefore cannot help wondering if these legends are true either, although mares have been known to be awkward at such times. George Stubbs painted the stallion with a cat. Was this the constant companion Grimalkin, or did it merely lead to the story? What is indisputable fact, is that Coke’s ‘ye Arabian’ stood at his owner’s Longford Hall in Derbyshire and covered the chestnut filly Roxana in 1731. The resulting bay colt, Lath, ‘a very elegant and beautiful horse’ by all accounts, was sold in due course to the Duke of Devonshire, to become the best racehorse of the day.
When Edward Coke died in 1733, his stallions were inherited by his friend Roger Williams and his mares and foals (including Lath) by the 2nd Earl of Godolphin. Lord Francis purchased the Arabian stallion and moved him to his stud in Cambridgeshire, in the Gogmagog Hills near Babraham. At this time the horse
gained the name by which he would be referred to throughout history.
After Lath’s success on the racecourse, the Godolphin Arabian became the earl’s prize stallion and to this day is represented in the pedigrees of many a great racehorse, including the mighty Eclipse, although not through the direct sire line. Lath’s dam, Roxana, also produced Cade (bay colt, 1734) who although not as prolific a racehorse, was the sire of Match’em, responsible for the male line continuing to today.
Several of the Godolphin Arabian’s sons were undefeated on the track and many went on to be influential sires, including Jalap, another considered to be a foundation sire of the modern Cleveland Bay. One of these sires was Cripple, sire of Gimcrack, who was the Red Rum of his day. Among his daughters was the dam of another great racehorse and sire, Highflyer. Many famous American racehorses, including Seabiscuit and Man o’ War, trace back to the Godolphin Arabian through their sire line.
Wandlebury House, the Earl of Godolphin’s seat, stood within Wandlebury Ring (Iron Age site) until demolished in the 1950s. Stables and other buildings still remain and the Godolphin Arabian is commemorated with an inscribed stone slab over his grave just inside the archway of the stable block. Approximately twenty-nine, he died in 1753, and universally lamented, was laid to rest with due ceremony. The story goes that Grimalkin followed him to his grave, sat disconsolately on the body as it waited to be lowered into it, before disappearing, never to be seen again.
(C) Heather King