In the late 1600s and early 1700s, three bay stallions of Middle Eastern descent stood at stud in England: the Darley Arabian from Syria, the Godolphin Arabian from Yemen, and the Byerley Turk from Arabia. Their fine conformation, speed and overall quality made them logical choices for breeding to local mares of European blood. Each left their mark on the lineage of British horses.
In Georgian England, the horses that resulted from crossing these Middle Eastern stallions with English mares proved they could carry a rider’s weight with speed over long distances. With such fast horses at the ready, horse racing went from a casual pastime to a popular sport among the British aristocracy. Selective breeding for speed and endurance increased, ultimately creating the swiftest horse in the world: the Thoroughbred.
Making it Official
To preserve these breeding records, the first volume of the General Stud Book was published in 1791, and featured the pedigree of mares that could be traced back to those three original foundation stallions. Today, each one of these stallions can be found in the pedigree of every Thoroughbred horse.
Racing also became popular in America in the 1700s, where Thoroughbreds had already found their way across the pond. The first volume of the American Stud Book—the U.S. version of Britain’s horse registry—was published in 1873. The Jockey Club was established not long after to be the principal governing body dedicated to the registry of Thoroughbred horses in America.
Today, the Jockey Club maintains the pedigrees of all Thoroughbreds in the U.S. The club’s database contains more than 1.8 million horses in a master pedigree file, including names of horses that trace back to the late 1800s. Approximately 22,000 Thoroughbreds are registered each year with the organization.
Legends of Sport
Thoroughbreds are incredibly athletic, and though they are most famous for their skills on the track, their talents aren’t limited to racing. The Thoroughbred has become the breed of choice for many riders who compete at all levels in the sport horse disciplines of dressage, eventing and show jumping.
To help encourage second careers for racing Thoroughbreds, the Jockey Club sponsors the Thoroughbred Incentive Program (TIP), which encourages the retraining of Thoroughbreds into other disciplines. Horses retired from racing, unraced horses, and horses retired from breeding often find success in jobs other than racing.
Over the past several decades in particular, trainers dedicated to the retraining of off-the-track Thoroughbreds for use as sport horses have found great success.
A horse named Keen was one of these, helping win team bronze in dressage at the 1976 Olympics—the first U.S. medal in dressage since 1948. The 17.2-hand chestnut gelding was too big to be a racehorse, but with rider Hilda Gurney, he helped put dressage on the map in the United States.
More recently, a 12-year-old former racehorse became the latest of many Thoroughbred stars in the sport of eventing. Although he never showed promise on the track, Blackfoot Mystery—affectionately called “Big Red”—turned into a top-level eventer. With rider Boyd Martin, he competed at the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where he showed heart and talent.
Probably the most famous Thoroughbred Olympic competitor is Touch of Class. A 16-hand bay mare, she was part of the U.S. Equestrian Team at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and helped bring home gold medals in the individual and team show jumping events. She went on to be inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame in 2000.
These three famous Thoroughbreds and the many others who are competing in dressage, eventing and show jumping prove that when it comes to speed, endurance and heart, the Thoroughbred is hard to beat.
Thoroughbred Fast Facts
Height: 15 to 17 hands
Color: Bay, chestnut, black, brown and gray.
Overall Appearance: Lean and lanky, with a straight head, high withers, and long, fine legs.
Registry: The Jockey Club
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!