All thoroughbred racehorses are descended from just three stallions imported to England from the East some 300 years ago.
The origins of the modern thoroughbred, the most beautiful animal bred by man, go back much further than 300 years. There is evidence that Roman soldiers held horse races at Wetherby, a few miles from York in England, around 208AD. The horses were delicate Arabs and many were left behind by the Romans and mated with English stock.
As a result, the improvement of the English horse began, which gathered momentum with Henry VIII some six centuries after the Romans had departed. He passed a variety of laws to protect the dwindling horse population and established a stud farm, where many of the horses were high-class animals from Spain and France.
Edward VI followed Henry VIII and further measures were taken to increase the quantity and quality of the English horse population, which was in a greatly improved state when Queen Elizabeth ascended the throne. She was a great lover of horseracing and maintained the Royal Stud founded by her father Henry VIII and preserved by her brother Edward VI.
Horseracing then had its ups and downs until the mid 1600s, when Charles II became king. For the first time horseracing was properly organised and it is generally believed that the history of the sport, as we know it today, began with the reign of Charles II.
For decades before Charles II, however, the quality of English horses had been slowly upgraded by the importation of several notable stallions from what was then loosely termed the “East” - Barbs from Barbary, Turks from Turkey and Arabians from the desert plains of Arabia. The development of what was to become the modern thoroughbred was thus well advanced even before Charles II.
The new king sent his Master of the Horse to the East in search of stallions and mares. The quest was successful and the Master of the Horse brought back many mares with him, the first time mares from the East had been imported. Whether the mares were Arabs, Barbs or Turks remains unknown, but they were probably from Barbary or Turkey because the Arabs had traditionally refused to sell their mares.
Whatever their origin, the Royal Mares as they came to be known, had a huge impact on racehorse breeding in England.
The improvement in the homebred English horse down the centuries, positive climatic factors and the sires brought from the East from towards the end of the 1600s combined to create the thoroughbred.
The first of the three founding sires was the Byerley Turk. Captain Byerley imported him to England in 1689 and rode him during the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
There followed in 1704 the Darley Arabian, the horse from which most modern thoroughbreds are descended, and finally in 1730 the Godolphin Arabian, which was discovered by a Mr Coke of Norfolk in Paris. One story has it that the horse was earning his keep drawing a water cart, when Coke recognized his value and imported him to England.
Breeders had great success crossing offspring of the three sires and this practice was followed for generations with the result that every thoroughbred today can be traced by direct male descent back to these three sires.
Each of the three produced a famous male descendant, which carried on the line. In the case of the Byerley Turk, it was his great grandson Herod. The Godolphin Arabian’s immortality was ensured by his grandson Matchem.
The most famous, however, was the Darley Arabian’s great, great grandson Eclipse. Born in 1764 he won all 18 starts - nine as a five-year-old in 1769 and the remainder the following year. Over 90% of all modern thoroughbreds descend from him in the male line.
Pure-bred Arabian horses, which have played such an important role in the development of the thoroughbred, have for well over a century been no match for the breed they helped create.
Famous horseracing personality and handicapper Admiral Rous wrote in 1850: “It is generally believed by the most learned men of the turf that a first-class English racehorse would give 6 stone (84 pounds) to the best Arabian which can be found, for any distance under 10 miles.”
In the 300 years since the importation of the three founding sires, the modern thoroughbred has been fashioned by a succession of skilled breeders, who have carefully selected horses based on pedigree and performances on the racecourse to use as stallions and broodmares.