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The quest to produce the perfect racehorse had been a task which occupied Kings and nobles for many, many years, and stallions were imported throughout the Middle Ages into England in an attempt to regularise and control the breeding processes

The Dubai World Cup won by Godolphin

History states that Henry VIII, his daughter, Elizabeth 1, and then the subsequent Stewart monarchs, had over time laid down rules and regulations to govern the breeding of horses and the records of which sire mated with which mate to produce which offspring. As a result of these precise records, we are able to trace back the origins of almost every horse which has ever performed on a track, certainly from the start of the 18th Century – and these records reveal that virtually every horse carries the bloodline of three horses, named simply “the Arabians”, which arrived in England at the end of the 17th or the beginning of the 18th century, almost 100 years before the first horses actually arrived in Australia.

It is in this period that the arrival of these three individual “Arabians” on the racing scene set in motion events which would fundamentally impact and change the history of the sport. The new arrivals were stallions of exceptional characteristics, which their owners and importers would use to change immeasurably the bloodstock through selective breeding. Moreover, and more importantly, because breeding records and horse pedigrees were now required to be written down by law, it can be shown that every racing thoroughbred at every major centre of horse racing since this time is descended from one of these three Arabians.

The Byerley Turk Bloodline

The first of these three to arrive was the Byerley Turk, brought to England by Robert Byerley, a soldier of fortune who captured him fighting against the Ottoman Turks at the battle of Vienna in 1683. Byerley later joined the army of King William III with the rank of Captain and spent considerable time fighting in Ireland, including at the Battle of the Boyne. Military records show that prior to the battle, Byerley was involved in a secret spying mission and only evaded capture by the enemy thanks to the speed and agility of his horse – the Turk – and these were the traits which subsequent stud program would seek to reproduce in his heirs. Records of the time describe the Turk as a black or bay horse, longer in the body and larger in size than a typical British horse, of Arabian or Persian breeding, with an excess of elegance, courage and speed. Captain Byerley did not overuse him as a racehorse, and on his return to England from soldiering the Turk was put to stud.

If the Byerley Turk did not enjoy success as a racehorse, his prowess in the breeding stakes more than makes up for his lack of it. To list his successful sons and daughters would call for a separate book on that subject. Nevertheless, here are a few of the more significant names to be sired in the  Turk’s lineage. For example, his great grandson is documented as a horse called Herod. Herod is recorded as the sire of the great horse, Eclipse, who raced his entire life unbeaten on the track and who lent his name to the “Eclipse Stakes” - one of the oldest races in the British Calendar. The thoroughbreds and winners to be found in the Eclipse line are too numerous to mention, but one significant equine hero to be found in this “Eclipse” branch of the Byerley line, is the Australian favourite “Winx

Herod himself proved a prodigious sire, being the leading horse in this field from 1777 to 1784, fathering over 200 thoroughbred horses in that period, who would continue their father's good work.  Among them we see such names as Florizel, the sire of Diomed. Diomed was taken to America as a breeding horse and proceeded to mate with the inferior blood stock of the American horse gene pool, leading to his recognition as the “founder” of American thoroughbreds. Progressing down the family tree, we find the name of Ksar, racing in France as a champion thoroughbred, winning the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe twice. Ksar is a descendent of the Byerley Turk progeny, Flying Dutchman, who after a successful career in Britain was sold to French aristocracy for, as usual, improving the bloodstock. His efforts in this area went so well that he is regarded as one of the main bloodline founders for French thoroughbreds. As with Winx in Australia, the Turk line continues in modern times in the UK with such famous horses as Nijinsky, Laurenzaccio and the great Frankel, all direct descendants of the horse that barely raced. 

Additionally, the influence of the Turk can be found in the regulations of the American Quarter Horse Association, through the activities of Diomed, in the American Saddlebred Association, a horse racing branch dating to Denmark, a direct blood relative of Diomed, and the Morgan Horse breeding Society, which originally used horses from the Diomed line for harness races and show jumping competitions.

The Darley Arabian Bloodline

Following hard on the heels of the Byerley Turk came the Darley Arabian, another fine horse who did little racing but a lot in the field of bloodstock improvement. His arrival was noted by Queen Anne herself as the event “which forms the great epoch from which the history of the turf should be dated.” And so it was!

The Darley Arabian was purchased in Aleppo, Syria, and brought to Britain for the usual purpose of bloodstock improvement, and on his arrival was put straight to stud. Standing over 15hands high he was described by an expert of the time as being of “substantial beauty and refinement with immeasurable strength”. Results were immediate. His first son was a mount by the name of Flying Childers which raced undefeated for a period of three seasons before going to stud himself. Another of the children sired by the Darley Arabian was Bulle Rock, who was exported to America in 1730 to become a major sire in the horse breeding program there, with descendants still in the field to this day.

A painting of Darley Arabian who arrived in the UK in 1700

The Godolphin Arabian Bloodline

The third significant arrival was the Godolphin Barb (barbary horse) of North African origins. Purchased by Francis, the 2nd Earl of Godolphin in 1724, he arrived in England by a most unusual route. Having served at stud for two years for the Bey (ruler) of Tunis, he was passed on to Louis XV, King of France. Louis had little interest in horses, much less in the expensive hobby of racing, and put the horse to work as a carthorse in the gardens of various royal palaces. Spotted by an English breeder, Edward Coke, a far better judge of horseflesh than the French king, he was bought and brought to England to be put to stud at Longford Hall in Derbyshire. On Coke’s death he was acquired by Godolphin for his own stud program, where he remained, fertile and prolific until his death. As with our other two “Arabians” the products of the Godolphin's loins are too numerous to mention in full. It is worth noting, none the less, that in the Godolphin” family tree we find the names Seabiscuit a champion American racer and the renowned Phar Lap, beloved champion in Australia.

Moving Horse Racing to the world stage

Unlike the development of racing and race horses in Europe and America, which can be traced directly to horses developed and bred in England, the growth of the Australian horse race industry has from a bloodstock point of view, far less well defined origins. The first horses to arrive in Australia with the first fleet are recorded only as “one stallion. one colt, three mares and two fillies”, all from South Africa, the bloodstock of which are not noted. Nevertheless, as in all the lands colonised by the British, horse racing and bloodstock management grew rapidly and thoroughbred stallions Young Rockingham and Northumberland, along with unnamed breeding mares had been imported from England by the start of the nineteenth century, followed shortly after by and American horse, Washington, and an Arabian known affectionately as Old Hector.

In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, on the back of these early imports, the Australian bloodstock industry mushroomed as racing clubs grew and expanded and the demand for “new blood” grew correspondingly. Thoroughbred horses were imported almost in boatloads from England and to a lesser extent from America to meet this need. The quality of the stock and the racing fields improved immeasurably, setting up the conditions which would favour the formal creation of the sport with its’ now world famous courses and races. Tracing the family trees of these early imports we come across such well-known names as the stallion Peter Finn and the breeding mares, Cutty Sark and Spaewife, later we find mention of Bemborough and Kingston Turf, and in modern time the famous winner, Black Caviar – all of these appearing in the greater bloodlines of one or more of the three original “Arabians.” What a small world is this horse racing!

Taking Racing Back To The Middle East - Dubai World Cup

And, for the next 150 years or so this small world prospered in the its’ heartlands of Australia, America and Britain, with significant outposts for the sport in countries as diverse as France, Singapore and Japan and Chile, until the turn of the 21st Century. In 1981, a horse race was staged on an old camel racing track in Dubai, which would change the pattern of the sport once again. Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, one of the richest of the United Arab Emirates, and coincidentally the owner of the Darley Stud breeding centre and the Godolphin Racing Stable had taken the decision to indulge his passion for horses and create a new centre for the Sport of Kings (or should that now be Sheiks!) and his desert Sheikdom would be it! The Sheiks’ involvement led to the establishment of the Dubai World Cup in 1996, which is run in March, at night, under floodlights and is rumoured to be the most valuable race in the world in terms of prize money.

Originally run at the Nad al Sheba course, it transferred in 2010 to the fabulous, purpose built Meydan course, with its artificial, weatherproof track. This was installed at the insistence of the Dubai Turf Club who had seen a delay to the second running of the race, when torrential rains had all but washed out the track. The day was saved, however, by the Sheik, who ordered his helicopters to fly over the course to dry it out, costing a delay of only twenty four hours.

The Dubai World Cup since its inception in 1996 has proved to be a headquarters for the horse racing fraternity, attracting horse and jockeys, not to mention owners from all over the world. Winners have come from the USA , Japan, the UK and Ireland, and France, as well as home grown and trained talent from the UAE. One factor which runs through the races, however, is that whichever winner you care to select, if you examine its’ pedigree, then you are sure to find that back in the mists of time there will be a sire linking it to either the Byerley Turk, the Darley Arabian or the Godolphin Barb. Even the Japanese owned and trained winner in 2012, Victoire Pisa, traces its’ line back to the Darley Arabian!

The world of horse racing may be a multi million dollar enterprise today, but it really is, in truth, quite small, tracing its’ serious origins back to three, long forgotten horses who provided bloodlines for the entire body of horse racing at the present time. Captain Byerley and Thomas Darley would be amazed to find out that the horses they brought to England three hundred years ago, give or take, had literally gone on to “father an industry!” - but that is what they did and long will it continue with thoroughbreds of ever improving quality thanks to developments in veterinary science and nutrition.

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