Most of us are hard pressed to trace our family tree beyond our great grandparents, so it's astonishing to realise the direct bloodline of a thoroughbred horse can be followed back through tens of generations.
There are over 5,000 Thoroughbred foals born in Great Britain every year, and over 110,000 born worldwide. Each one can trace their ancestry back through the father's line to one of three horses - the Godolphin Arabian, the Byerley Turk or the Darley Arabian.
When did it all start?
It is impossible to say exactly when the Thoroughbred developed but in the late 17th and early 18th centuries British breeders began crossing their native mares with imported stallions from North Africa and the Middle East. Those which were mated with the Godolphin Arabian, Byerley Turk or the Darley Arabian ultimately produced the modern Thoroughbred.
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 Herod, foaled in 1758, who was leading sire eight times
- Descendent Highflyer and his sons were champion stallions 23 times in 25 years
- 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 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 and can be seen at the National Horseracing Museum in Newmarket.
The adaptability of the Thoroughbred
Originally bred to cope with endurance tests as mature horses, the nature of the Thoroughbred has changed along with the demands of racing. They have become much larger, faster over shorter distances and are maturing earlier.
The early Thoroughbreds ran in match races, mostly at around four miles, which suited the stamina rich, tough Arabian influence. But in the latter quarter of the 18th century, the nature of racing changed with the inception of the far shorter St Leger, Oaks and Derby, and an increasing emphasis on racing two and three-year-olds.
Thoroughbreds are often highly-strung creatures but it is this nervous energy which enables them to run faster than other breeds of horse. They are capable of clocking approximately 45 miles per hour.
Hand in hand with the development of the Thoroughbred went the need to record its evolution. The General Stud Book was first published by Weatherbys in 1791, and has continued to the present day. It has been the base for all other Stud Books world-wide.
All horses featured in the General Stud Book have fulfilled the criteria for registered Thoroughbreds if all lines of their pedigree can be traced to horses in the Book or another approved foreign Stud Book.
Interested in learning more about the history?
Then a visit to The National Horseracing Museum in Newmarket is well worth it. The National Horse Racing Museum was chosen as 1999's winning visitor attraction (over 100,000) in the East of England, as part of the English Tourist Board's England for Excellence awards.
As well as plenty of amazing historic items to see, the museum offers more practical things to do including a number of interesting tours around Newmarket stables giving you a real insight into the world of horseracing. Plus there's plenty to do for the kids - they too can be kept occupied in the Practical Gallery, learning how to tack up a horse, dressing in racing silks and there's even a racehorse simulator - so throw away the gameboy!