History of the Thoroughbred Racehorse

The Thoroughbred Racehorse

The Thoroughbred racehorse as we know it today traces its origins back to just three foundation sires: Darley Arabian, Godolphin Arabian and Byerley Turk. When you think that according to the BHB there are over 110,000 Thoroughbred foals born worldwide and roughly 5,000 in Great Britain alone every year that is a very large family tree. The three sires are referred to by the name of their owners: Thomas Darley, Lord Godolphin and Captain Robert Byerley respectively.

The breed developed in the late 17th and early 18th century when British horse breeders began crossing their native mares, probably breeds such as Scottish Galloways and the Irish Hobby, with these imported Arabian stallions from North Africa and the Middle East and so began a breeding process that to this day, over three hundred years later, still continues - in it’s simplest form, take the best mares to the best stallions.

The Thoroughbred breeding season runs from 15th February to 15th July in the Northern Hemisphere, and the gestation period is usually about 11 months. All racehorses celebrate their official birthday on January 1st so the aim for any breeder is to ensure foals are born in the months just after the New Year. Any early foaled horse has as much time as possible to mature before they go racing as a two-year-old. A foal born during January and one born during June would both be considered one year old on the following January, despite a five month difference in true age. In theory a foal born on 31st December for example would effectively become a one-year-old when only two days old!

The thoroughbred has developed down the centuries with the modern day sprinter such as J J the Jet Plane or the great Lochsong being very different beasts from those raced during the 1700’s in the original match races over distances such as four miles. Originally the breed was much more stamina laden than todays larger, faster and earlier maturing horses.

An historical note: The term ‘Steeplechase’ refers to some of these early races, and earlier with native breeds, when races would be run through the countryside taking in various natural obstacles such as hedges, walls and rivers with a local church being the finishing point. A church was chosen because they were nearly always the tallest buildings and usually stood in a prominent location such as a hill or on the edge of a town. The steeple of the church could be seen from miles away and competitors would literally ‘chase the steeple’. These races were often used by the Hunting community to keep their horses fit. Todays racing still has connections to those bygone days with Point-To-Point racing still popular – a term believed to derive from races which involved racing from one church steeple to another - and Hunter Chases, races which are open to thoroughbred horses that have hunter certificates and have been ‘hunted’ that season and confined to amateur riders only (no Hunter Chase can be run before 1st February of any year).

In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s the races now referred to as the ‘Classics’ St. Leger (1776), The Oaks (1779), The Derby (1780), 2000 Guineas (1809) and 1000 Guineas (1814) were first run and the emphasis in breeding became one more of speed than endurance – a thoroughbred can reach speeds of around 45mph and cover a mile in roughly one and a half minutes.

During the 20th and 21st centuries in the search for perfection in the thoroughbred breeding operations have become multi million pound businesses. The most expensive horse ever bought was The Green Monkey costing a mind blowing $16 million and stud fees for leading sires such as Sadlers Wells, Galileo and Danehill Dancer for example are simply advertised as ‘Private’; as they say: if you need to ask you can’t afford it.

It has been suggested that the all conquering Sea The Stars could earn up to £700,000 a week for his owners during the breeding season in 2010 at a cost believed to be in excess of £84,000 per cover – not bad for a stallion as yet unproven as a sire. Storm Cat, the most expensive stallion in the world is said to cost $400,000 (£277,000) per cover, if he produces 70 live foals in a season (a conservative estimate) he will earn his owner $28 million (£19.4 million) eclipsing even the earning power of Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid!

Despite the vast amounts of money involved breeding is still far from an exact science, artificial insemination is strictly against the rules of breeding thoroughbred racehorses A horse is not qualified to be entered for start in any race unless it and its sire and dam are each the produce of a natural service or covering, and unless a natural gestation took place in, and the delivery was from, the body of the mare in which the horse was conceived. (Ruff’s Guide to the Turf 1996, p. 124)

A glorious racing record is no guarantee of an illustrious stud career. In fact there are no guarantees in the racing game at all as some of the horror stories from the Sales Ring confirm; the most expensive horse ever sold being a case in point. The Green Monkey was sold for the princely sum of $16 million at the 2006 Fasig-Tipton select two-year-old sale. Sired by Forestry out of Magical Masquerade The Green Monkey was basically a complete failure on the track racing three times and never troubling the judge. The beast is now standing at stud with his first offspring being foaled in 2010 and due to run 2012.

Update: * passed away 9th July 2018 http://www.girdysgeegees.com/blog/the-green-monkey-worlds-most-expensive-auction-thoroughbred-dies

The previous record from 1985 was $13.1 million for Seattle Dancer sold at the Keenland Selected Yearling Sale of that year; the colt was at least fairly successful. He never raced as a two-year-old but raced five times at three and won the Group 3 Gallinule Stakes at the Curragh and the Group 2 Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial at Leopardstown. When retired he went on to have a relatively fruitful stud career until his death in 2007 producing a number of Listed and Group performers.

Another previous record price holder that proved a total flop was Snaafi Dancer. The first horse to sell for over $10 million, finally selling for $10.2 million in 1983, the colt never even made it to the racetrack. To add to the ignominy the colt was discovered to have fertility problems and during his two years at stud he sired only four foals, only three of which actually raced, with what could best be described as very limited success. Snaafi Dancer was last reported as living on a farm in Florida – without doubt the worlds’ most expensive hack.

If only to confirm that money is not everything in racing the winner of the 2000 Guineas in 2010 Makfi cost the relatively small sum of 26,000 guineas when sold by his owner/breeder Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum as an unraced two-year-old and has subsequently racked up over £500,000 worth of career earnings.

Horse racing is often referred to as ‘the Sport of Kings’ and our own Royal Family are noted racehorse enthusiasts the old Queen Mothers love of racehorses being well documented. The Royal Stud at Hampton Court has played an important part in the progress and promotion of breeding and racing horses. The late Queen was heavily involved in the Royal Stud and closely involved with the acquisition of any new horses. She usually had approximately 25 horses in training each year. The new King has horses in training and it appears the Royals love affair with the game will continue for a while yet. 

The Royal family of United Arab Emirates are of course arguably the biggest player in thoroughbred racing across the globe today; His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s love of horses is renowned. Godolphin is the Maktoum family's private horseracing stable and was named in honour of the Godolphin Arabian. The project started in 1992 with a select band of horses and has over the following years evolved into arguably the worlds biggest and most successful horse racing stable. The Godolphin operation is based at its headquarters Al Quoz Stables in Dubai where the horses winter, moving to Europe for the start of the racing season here in March where the horses spend the British summer at Godolphin Stables or Moulton Paddocks in Newmarket. The facilities at Al Quoz are second to none including a nine furlong private training track and an equine swimming pool. Upon arrival in the UK at Godolphin Stables and Moulton Paddocks the horses are treated to no less than first class accommodation with a swimming pool, spa, private training tracks, turn-out pens, paddocks, indoor schools, veterinary facilities, farrier rooms etc. In addition, Sheikh Mohammed has a major breeding operation, Darley, headed by Dalham Hall Stud in Newmarket and including stud farms in Ireland, America, Australia and Japan. As well as a major owner/breeder Sheikh Mohammed is always one of the big hitters at the yearling sales year after year. Godolphin’s greatest horse, and Sheikh Mohammed’s personal favourite, was the magnificent Dubai Millennium, who won nine of his ten starts including a stunning victory in the world’s richest race, the Dubai World Cup, in 2000.

The thoroughbred breed is raced in countries across the world and it is no longer unusual to see horses from the UK being sent to compete across Europe in countries such as France, Germany and Italy and further a field to the United States, Dubai, South Africa, Japan, Hong Kong and Australia and of course vice versa – the great Australian sprinter Choisir taking Royal Ascot by storm in 2003 winning the King’s Stand and Golden Jubilee.

The breed has come along way since Thomas Darley, Lord Godolphin and Captain Robert Byerley brought the foundation sires to Great Britain and is set to thrive long into the future as long as the love affair with horse racing from the working man through Kings, Queens and Princes alike continues.

Colours of the Thoroughbred Race Horse 

There are seven different official colours for racehorses. Below is a list of these colours and the abbreviations for each as it appears in the race card next to each horse (in case Granny wants to back the Grey).
  • Bay (B) – covers a huge range of the colour brown, from bright bay through to dark bay, which is as near as damn it black. Bay horses have black manes and tails.
  • Chestnut (CH) – a reddish or ginger coat colour, with a mane and tail to match.
  • Brown (Br) – a horse registered as Brown will also have a brown mane and tail.
  • Grey (Gr) – ranging from almost white to steel-coloured grey. Grey horses tend to get lighter in colour as they get older - a bit like the silver fox I am becoming!
  • Black (Bl) – simply a purely black horse, these are surprisingly rare.  Many confuse a dark bay with black.
  • Roan (Ro) – a Roan horse has a coat that is interspersed with red and white or brown and white hairs. The mane, tail, and legs can be black, chestnut, or roan, this is a pretty rare colouring.
  • White (Wh) – also very rare colour. Most horses that appear to be white will in fact be classed as Grey. 

Triple Crown

The ‘Triple Crown’ of horse racing in Great Britain is made up of the three classic Flat races the 2,000 Guineas, The Derby and the St. Leger Stakes.

Only fifteen horses have ever claimed the Triple Crown the first being West Australian back in 1853 and the last being the great Nijinsky in 1970.  

It should be remembered that the Sheikh Mohammed owned and Henry Cecil trained Oh So Sharp did complete the Fillies ‘Triple Crown’ of 1000 Guineas, Oaks and St. Leger in 1985.

It is questionable as to whether the feat will ever be completed again due to the nature of the test with the horse having to win the three Classics which are run over such different distances: one mile, one mile four furlongs and one mile six furlongs respectively.

Also often mooted as a reason for so few horses attempting the Triple Crown in the modern era is the fact that having won a Guineas and Derby winning the St Leger may well have a detrimental affect on the colts future stud value with more importance being put on success at shorter distances by breeders and owners. An example being the great Sea The Stars who swept all before him in 2009 triumphing in the 2000 Guineas, Derby, Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Irish Champion Stakes, Eclipse etc but wasn’t considered for the St Leger.

The final Classic of the season does appear to be becoming more fashionable again though with the likes Kew Gardens running in the Derby before winning the St Leger in 2018 and Hurricane Lane triumphing in 2021 renewal having won the Irish Derby and finished third at Epsom before that. Camelot was the last to actually attempt the Triple Crown and only just missed out in 2012 having won the 2,000 Guineas and Derby he was second in the St Leger.  

Triple Crown Winners

1853 West Australian

1865 Gladiateur

1866 Lord Lyon

1886 Ormonde

1891 Common

1893 Isinglass

1897 Galtee More

1899 Flying Fox

1900 Diamond Jubilee

1903 Rock Sand

1915 Pommern

1917 Gay Crusader

1918 Gainsborough

1935 Bahram

1970 Nijinsky


The Derby

Hurrah it’s Bunbury Day! – doesn’t quite ring true does it? But so the story goes that but for the result of a flip of a coin on Epsom Downs in 1780 we would be looking forward to the Bunbury rather than the Derby in June. In 1779 Edward Smith Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby organised a race for himself and his friends to race their three-year-old fillies over one and a half miles. He named it the Oaks after his estate. The race was so successful that the following year a new race was added for colts and fillies. The title of the new race was decided after the Earl of Derby and Sir Charles Bunbury, a leading racing figure of the day and friend of the Earl's, flipped a coin to decide who should have the honour of naming this new race. The Earl of Derby won and so begun the history of this great race with the inaugural running of the Derby; won, incidentally, by Sir Charles Bunburys horse Diomed.

The original contest was held over a mile with the starting point in a straight line beyond the current five-furlong marker at Epsom racecourse. The famous Tattenham Corner was not introduced until 1784 when the course was extended to its current distance of a mile- and-a-half.

The Derby is the race that all trainers, owners and jockeys want to win and the list of past winners reads like an A-Z of the great and the good of the equine world. Lester Piggott rode nine winners including the great Nijinsky for Vincent O’Brien in 1970. Aidan O’Brien won back to back renewals in 2001 and 2002 with Galileo and High Chaparral, Sir Michael Stoute has trained the winner on five occasions (including Workforce in 2010) perhaps most memorably with the brilliant but ill fated Shergar in 1981. Willie Carson, Henry Cecil. Dick Hern, Kierren Fallon, Johnny Murtagh, Walter Swinburn, Pat Eddery, Luca Cumani, Saeed bin Suroor, John Magnier, MichaelTabor, Sheik H. Al-Maktoum, H.H. Aga Khan, the list goes on and of course a certain Frankie Dettori finally breaking his duck in the race in 2007 steering home Authorized.