Race Horses

Changes in an Ancient Sport

Horse racing, the favorite pastime of King Charles II began to be called "The Sport of Kings" during his reign. Charles II acquired foreign mares to improve the English horse through his marriage to Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705). The queen consort was the daughter of John IV of Portugal. She was married to Charles in 1662. As part of her dowry England secured Bombay and Tangier. The mares imported from Tangier and the resulting stock came to be called the "royal mares." This breeding stock would form the basis of the mares later bred with imported middle-eastern stallions to develop the Thoroughbred horse.

England's Queen Anne, who reigned from 1702 to 1714, helped to establish horse racing as we know it. In 1711, while Queen Anne was out riding on the edge of Windsor Great Park she noticed a natural clearing near the village of East Cote. Queen Anne ordered her Master of the Buckhounds, The Duke of Somerset, to lay out a course 'for horses to gallop at full stretch'. This race course came to be called Ascot. Queen Ann raced her own horses and offered the first trophy. Two of the three Foundation stallions were imported to England during Queen Anne's reign. The third was imported fifteen years after the end of Anne's reign.

The Thoroughbred Breed founded on Three Stallions

The Byerly Turk (1680-1696)

from original contemporary painting Captain Robert Byerley captured a black horse from the Turks at the siege of Buda in Hungary in 1686. The Byerly Turk , (The second e was dropped by accident by a printer.) as the horse came to be know, was the first of the three foundation stallions to come to Britain. He was brought to England in 1689. The Byerly Turk founded a line of Thoroughbreds with the foals from the small number of mares he was bred to. His most important descendant was Herod, foaled in 1758, whose success as a sire assured the continuity of the Byerly line.

The Darley Arabian (1700-1733)

Darley Arabian by J. N. Sartorius The second of the three Arabian foundation stallions to be imported to England was foaled in 1700 and bought by Thomas Darley in Aleppo, Syria in 1704 for his brother Richard. Once at the Darley estate, Aldby, in Yorkshire, the stallion was bred to numerous mares. Two very important colts, Flying Childers and Bartlet's Childers, came from these matings. Through the Childers line, the Darley Arabian was the great-great-grandsire of Eclipse. Painting by John Wootton.

The Godolphin Arabian (1724-1753)

The third and final foundation stallion to come to England was imported from France in 1729 by Mr.Edward Coke. The horse was probably tribute to the King of France by the Bey of Tunis. In England, the stallion passed to the second Earl of Godolphin after Coke's death. Matings with the distinguished mare Roxana produced Lath, the greatest racehorse in England after Flying Childers, and Cade, the sire of the great Matchem. Lord Chedworth's Regulus was another important offspring. "The blood of the Godolphin Arabian is in every stable in England." was a true statement by 1850.

David Morier's painting of the Godolphin Arabian is the only picture actually drawn from life. That painting includes the Godolphin Arabian's beloved companion, the cat, Grimalkin. In that picture the cat is portrayed as black, crouching by the open stable door. This picture of the Godolphin Arabian was painted by George Stubbs after the Godolphin Arabian's death, but the composition was clearly inspired by the Morier painting.

Alcock's Arabian

The Alcocks Arabian was a grey horse imported to England in 1704 from Constantinople along with a handful of other Arabians by Sir Robert Sutton. This stallion is responsible for the continuous line of greys found in the Thoroughbred breed today. Although there was another horse noted to be grey (the Brownlow Turk), the studies of Lady Wentworth proved this horse and the Alcocks Arabian to be the same horse. (When the horse had changed hands, the new owner had simply given the horse a different name.)


The foundation stallions were all Arabian horses. The descendants of these sires and the "royal mares" were the first actual Thoroughbreds. A large number of Arabian horses were imported to England between 1660 and 1750, but the direct descendants of three foundation stallions contributed the most to the breed as we know it today through three of their descendants: Herod ( descendant of the Byerly Turk), Eclipse ( descendant of the Darley Arabian), and Matchem (descendant of the Godolphin Arabian). All 387 mares listed in the first volume of the General Stud Book trace their origins to these three Thoroughbred stallions. Of these, the lineage of Eclipse is dominant in the modern Thoroughbred.

By 1750 the new long legged, larger, faster Thoroughbred horse had become an established breed. The long legged Thoroughbred averages 16 hands tall at the withers and is capable of speeds of up to 40 miles per hour or between 50 and 60 feet per second. A Thoroughbred can cover 20 feet or more in a single stride. This new horse bred for speed was much taller and faster than any that had come before.

With the rapid expansion of horse racing came the need for a central governing authority. In 1750 racing's elite met at Newmarket to form the Jockey Club. The Jockey Club wrote complete rules of racing and sanctioned racecourses to conduct meetings under those rules. To this day the club exercises complete control over English racing. The club gave James Weatherby the job of keeping a pedigree book of Thoroughbreds. The first volume of The General Studbook was published in 1791. The book listed 387 mares all descendants of three imported Arab Stallions who were the Foundation of the Thoroughbred breed.

Flying Childers

Ackermann print, from painting by James Seymour 1740 A bay colt with a blaze and four white stockings born in 1714 became the first great thoroughbred racehorse; his name was Flying Childers. He was a son of the Darley Arabian, one of the three foundation sires of the Thoroughbred. Flying Childers, owned by the Duke of Devonshire, was never beaten. He was called "Mile a Minute Childers." He sired two particularly significant sons, Blaze and Snip. Blaze, in addition to his contributions to the thoroughbred as the sire of Herod's dam also became the foundation sire of the Hackney when crossed with mares of Norfolk Roadster blood. Snip was the sire of the important sire Snap.


Herod Herod, a bay colt foaled in 1758, was owned by William Augustus the Duke of Cumberland, the third son of King George II. The Duke was an important breeder of horses at Cranbourne Lodge and introduced the future George IV to horse breeding and racing. Herod started his racing career at the age of 5 years in 1763 by winning a race at Newmarket over the Beacon course of about 4 miles. Herod, great-great-grandson of the Byerly Turk, established the the importance of the Byerly line through many notable descendants. The most notable descendant of Herod was Diomed, the winner of the first Epsom Derby in 1780. Herod is the ancestor of about 5 percent of all current Thoroughbreds.


Sired by the Godolphin Arabian, Lord Chedworth's Regulus(born in 1739) was undefeated in his racing career, including seven King's Plates won as a six-year-old. Regulus was an important sire. His offspring included Jalap a foundation sire of the Cleveland Bay coach horse breed. Regulus' most important daughter was Spiletta, dam of Eclipse.


Eclipse at Newmarket with a Groom and Jockey by George Stubbs c.1770 Eclipse was bred for the Duke of Cumberland at Cranbourne. The horse was named for the astronomical event of 1764. He began racing in 1769 at age five. Eclipse was difficult to handle and hard to ride due to his style of running with his nose almost sweeping the ground. John Oakley was the only jockey who could ride the horse successfully. Eclipse out distanced his competition in his first race at Epsom. It was at this race on May 3, 1769 that the flamboyant Captain Denis O'Kelly made his bet in the form of the quip, "Eclipse first, the rest nowhere." In 1769, a horse that was more than 240 yards behind the winner was said to be "distanced", or nowhere. O'Kelley won his bet and became a part owner of Eclipse. Eclipse won 18 races in his career without ever being whipped or spurred. Eclipse retired to stud and sired three of the first five Derby winners including the noted Pot-8-O's. Eclipse's many distinguished descendants are the reason for the predominance of his great-great-grandfather the Darley Arabian's line over the lines of the other two Foundation stallions. 80 percent of all Thoroughbreds today can trace their ancestry back to Eclipse.


painting by John Wootton in Mellon collection Matchem, foaled in 1748, was the grandson of the Godolphin Arabian. Unlike many race horses he had an excellent disposition as well as speed. Matchem passed these qualities onto his descendants. Matchem's bloodline was not as widespread as his famous peers, but ten of his descendants were brought to America. About 5 percent of today's Thoroughbreds are descended from Matchem.

Other important or well known horses


Diomed, foaled in 1777, won the first Epsom Derby in England in 1780 for his owner Sir Charles Bunbury. He was bought by an American, Colonel John Hoomes, in 1798. Diomed had a reputation in England as "a bad foal-getter. " but in America Diomed sired some of the most famous horses in American turf history.


The high strung Whistlejacket could be managed only by his groom, Simon Cobb. The 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, his owner, commissioned Stubbs to paint him.


Gimcrack a thoroughly game little horse, standing only 14.2 hands, had his first race at Epsom in 1764 and won all seven of his races that year. He was beaten only ten times in eight years through nearly 40 races. He retired to stud in 1771.

Tyrant, owned by the Duke of Grafton won the Derby at 7-1 against in 1802. He lay back at third against Mr Wilsons young Eclipse and Sir Charles Bunbury's Orlando until near the end of the race when Buckle passed the two leaders as they wore themselves out. Thanks to the astute jockeying of Francis Buckle Tyrant become "the weakest horse to ever win a Derby."

Pot-8-Os was an important race horse with a career between 1777 and 1783. Lord Grosvenor purchased him, later putting him to stud.

Hambletonian, owned by Henry Tempest Vane , was painted by Stubbs in 1800 after winning a match race in 1799 against Diamond.

The Prince's Own
Thoroughbred Heritage, The Jockey Club, and
Performance Horse Registry, supplied information for this page.

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