March 6, 2016
This article was originally published in Populous Magazine, our biannual publication featuring news, information, and trends from the worlds of sport, entertainment, and major public events. Find out more, and sign up to receive a free copy, here.
Virtually all winning Thoroughbred racehorses trace their lineage back to an early 18th-Century Arabian called Darley Arabian. Horse racing writer Ryan Herman follows the family tree.
It may well have been one of the earliest arms deals between Europe and the Middle East. In 1702 Thomas Darley travelled from Britain to Syria to purchase a horse. There are several accounts of how that transaction was made but it is believed the stallion was sold in exchange for a shipment of rifles. Little did Darley know just how significant his journey would turn out to be. The horse would later be named Darley Arabian. Examine his lineage, and you realise he is responsible for an astounding 95 per cent of all male Thoroughbreds in horse racing, including modern-day superstars Frankel and American Pharoah.
The Thoroughbred is a breed of horse originating from English mares and Arab stallions. In the early 1700s three stallions were imported from the Middle East – Darley Arabian, Byerley Turk and Godolphin Arabian – in the hope of producing racehorses with greater speed and stamina. It was the exploits of Darley Arabian’s great-great-great grandson, Eclipse, that would be pivotal to his enduring influence. Sadly, Thomas Darley never saw the fruits of his horse’s labour. He was said to have died of poisoning on his way back to England for his own wedding.
This Thoroughbred won all of his 18 races and inspired the phrase, “Eclipse first, the rest nowhere”. But what made him so good? Eclipse was perfectly proportioned, except for one abnormality – his heart was much larger than the average Thoroughbred’s. That gives a horse both greater stamina and strength. Other big-hearted champions include 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat and Aussie champion Phar Lap. Soon all breeders wanted horses that were related to Eclipse.
Bloodstock agents who buy and sell horses for a living tend to rely on two factors: breeding and looks. But looks can be deceiving. Stockwell was called “the very incarnation of ugliness” and was noted for having a poor running action but he still managed to win two English classics (the 2000 Guineas Stakes and the St Leger Stakes). Celebrated descendants of Stockwell include American legends Man o’ War and Seabiscuit.
After Nearco had won 13 races on home soil, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini allowed him to run in the Grand Prix de Paris. The French viewed Nearco as a symbol of fascism and, after his jockey emerged victorious, he only added to the controversy by making a fascist salute. The horse was subsequently sold to an English bookmaker which didn’t go down particularly well with Il Duce, as Mussolini was known.
Without Darley Arabian, many of the world’s greatest Thoroughbreds never would have existed.
This grandson of Nearco never met his reserve price of US$25,000 at the yearling sales, so his owner, E.P. Taylor, decided to keep him. Northern Dancer was a colt with an eye for the fillies and his trainer thought he should be gelded to make him focus on racing rather than reproducing. Fortunately, he remained intact, not only winning the Kentucky Derby but also siring 26 future champions.
Prior to Sadler’s Wells, if you wanted to buy a potential Derby winner you would go to the sales in Kentucky. This horse was purchased by British owner Robert Sangster, as famous for his playboy lifestyle (he had an affair with Jerry Hall) as he was for his association with trainer Vincent O’Brien and jockey Lester Piggott. Sangster teamed up with John Magnier, owner of the Coolmore Stud in Ireland which became the world’s most successful breeding operation on the back of Sadler’s Wells.
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