The Horse – Deserts of Arabia to Derby Day Down Under


Today thoroughbred racehorses compete on racecourses all around the world and from the deserts of Arabia to the Melbourne Cup Carnival in Australia, the thoroughbred racehorse has become an advocate for the strengthening of a rapprochement between former adversaries.

In Chinese culture, horses are part of a 12-year-cycle of animals that makes up the Chinese zodiac. People born in the Year of the Horse are considered adventurous, stable and quite energetic and it seems, want to improve themselves. They like large crowds, something they have in common with the racehorse.

Thoroughbred racehorses have a general type.

Characteristics of the breed state that on average, they stand a little over sixteen hands tall with a refined head and widely-spaced, intelligent eyes that sit on a neck, which is somewhat longer and lighter than in other horse breeds.

The withers are high, well defined, leading to an elegant evenly curved back. The shoulder is deep well muscled and extremely sloped, while the heart girth is deep and relatively narrow. The legs are clean and long with pronounced tendons and they move smoothly in unison through one plane.

All thoroughbreds trace their lineage back to three foundation sires: The Darley Arabian, The Godolphin Arabian and The Byerley Turk who were named for their respective owners Thomas Darley, Lord Godolphin and Captain Robert Byerley.

They brought the stallions to England from the Mediterranean Middle East.  The Arabians were all bred to native sprinting mares, thought to have been Scottish Galloway’s. This was a now extinct horse breed once native to Scotland and northern England, which was renowned for its ‘good looks, wide deep chest and tendency to pace, rather than trot’.

The resultant foals were considered the first thoroughbreds.

The horse race known as The Derby, which is held in many countries around the world, is all about testing the strength and endurance of three year old colts and fillies. It is considered ‘the blue riband’ of turf racing.

The inaugural running of ‘The Derby‘ in England was on the 4th May 1780 when a colt owned by Sir Charles Bunbury won first prize. The Derby had originated at a celebration in 1779, when the new race was planned to be named for the 12th Earl of Derby, or one of his guests, Sir Charles Bunbury British Politician.

According to legend the decision was made by the toss of a coin, but it is probable that Bunbury, who was also the Steward of the Jockey Club, simply deferred to his host.

Nearby the market town of Newmarket in the gently rolling countryside of Suffolk in England, which is just over 100 kilometres outside of London, the chalky ground of its fields have been found to be particularly perfect for raising and racing horses from as far back as 1174.

It is the earliest known racing venue of post-classical times and King James I (1566 – 1625) greatly increased the popularity of horse racing there.

It was England’s King Charles I (1600-1649) who inaugurated the first ever horse cup race in 1634. Following his restoration to the throne in 1660 his son, Charles II also established, after 1671 nearby his palace at Newmarket what was recently discovered, and believed to have been, the 1st professional horse racing stables in the world*.

During the 17th century the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de Medici (1642- 1723) travelled to England in where he met Charles II described a four mile race between 2 horses held at Newmarket in which Charles and his retinue, joined in from the 2 mile post until the finish. Today the English Jockey Club’s clubhouse at Newmarket has become a global centre for thoroughbred horse racing and a place where the racehorse has become a cultural ambassador between nations.

Most people associate Arabian horses with being white, while technically they are considered ‘grey’. All Arabians, no matter what their coat colour have black skin, which evolved to provide protection from the intense desert sun. Coat colours include bay, chestnut, black and roan, although black is the least common. Arabian horses stand usually between 14.1 to 15.1 hands high and have a distinctive head shape, arched neck and high tail carriage. Most have a compact body with a short back.

They are one of the oldest breeds of horse in existence, archaeological evidence dates them back over 4,500 years. There are many myths and legends associated with them throughout history. They are an focal point of many great stories of courage, loyalty and faith, as humans and the horse bonded as one. Arabian bloodlines are found in almost every breed of modern riding horses, especially thoroughbreds.

Historically humankind owes a great debt to this most noble of animals. The domestication of the horse more than 5,000 years ago dramatically changed human history. Domestication is thought to have first happened on the steppes of South Russia with horses being introduced into the Middle East around 2,300BC.  Before this introduction, asses and donkeys were used for transport, predominantly as harness animals pulling cumbersome but technologically advanced vehicles – as seen on objects found at the Royal Cemetery of Ur.

Horses became a vital component in warfare and hunting, as reflected in the art of ancient Assyria, where elaborate and ornate horse trappings and ornaments were developed reflecting the prestige and status of horse, charioteer and rider and were recorded on stone reliefs.

Riding became an essential part of society during the Achaemenid period (5th -4th century BC), a cylinder seal of Darius, dating to 522 – 486 BC reveals the king hunting lions in a chariot, and famously, the Achaemenid’s introduced ‘post horses’ which were used to deliver messages on the royal road.

The horsemen of the Parthian Empire (3rd century  BC – 3rd century AD) were celebrated by Roman authors for the ‘Parthian shot’, in which an apparently retreating rider would shoot arrows backwards whilst on horseback and they are represented on terracotta plaques and bronze belt buckles in the collection of the British Museum.

Palace Nimrud Assyria 9th century BC Three Horses

Prized by the nomadic Bedouin people, Arabian horses were often brought inside the family tent at night for shelter and protection from theft.

This was depicted in the 1959 William Wyler movie Ben Hur, when Sheik Ilderim, played by Welsh actor Hugh Griffith, brings his four white Arabian horses Aldebaran, Antares, Altair, and Rigel into his tent to say goodnight to his guests Balthazar (Finlay Currie) and Ben Hur (Charlton Heston). Ildrem explains that they are far too valuable to be left unprotected, as they mean so much to his people.

Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Mughal miniature paintings, ceramics and manuscripts attest to the growing importance of the horse in the Islamic world from the seventh century where exquisite Mughal miniatures depicted their Princes with their valued Middle Eastern steeds.

The Furusiyya manuscript, dating to the 14th century AD, is an illustrated manual of horsemanship, including information on proper care for the horse, advanced riding techniques, expert weapon handling, manoeuvres and elaborate parade formations. The three Arabians brought into England in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were all outstanding horses.

The Byerley Turk
In 1686 at the second siege of Buda, which is the western part of the Hungarian capital Budapest on the west bank of the Danube, Captain Byerley captured a horse from the Turks. He reputedly later rode the horse at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Back in England the horse distinguished himself as a sire, although he was not bred to very many mares. In spite of his name, he was probably an Arabian. The Byerley Turk founded a line of Thoroughbreds, the most distinguished of which was Herod, who was foaled in 1758, and proved to be a very successful sire himself.

The Darley Arabian
The second of the three foundation stallions the Darley Arabian was foaled in 1700. He was bought by Thomas Darley at Aleppo (Syria) in 1704. The horse was shipped to Yorkshire, where he was bred to numerous mares. The most successful mating resulted in two very important colts: Flying Childers and Bartlet’s Childers. Through the Childers line, the Darley Arabian was the great great grandsire of Eclipse, who gained the description “Eclipse first, the rest nowhere.

The Darley Arabian is the most important of the three foundation stallions in terms on his influence of the Thoroughbred breed.

This is mainly because the list of his great great grandson Eclipse’s distinguished descendants is virtually endless and the reason for the predominance of the Darley Arabian line over the lines of the other two foundation stallions.

The Godolphin Arabian
The last to come to England, The Godolphin Arabian was foaled in Yemen and given to the King of France as a gift. One story tells of the horse pulling a lowly water cart at Paris.

The carthorse was admired and bought by an Englishman named Edward Coke, who brought him to England. The second Earl of Godolphin acquired the horse and bred him to several distinguished mares. Mated to Roxana, he sired Lath, the greatest racehorse in England after Flying Childers: another mating of these two produced Cade, the sire of the great Matchem who carried on the line of the Godolphin Arabian. In 1850 it was remarked, “The blood of the Godolphin Arabian is in every stable in England.”

A lively big bay horse painted by James Seymour (1702–1752), being led by a training groom, is thought likely to be Flying Childers.

It’s an eighteenth century watercolour and a great example of the flourishing horse painting genre of the time when animal and sporting portrait art works were commissioned by the wealthy, royalty included. James Seymour’s art epitomizes the delightful style employed by the best.

Flying Childers was foaled in 1714 and was sired by the great ‘Darley Arabian’. He was purchased from his breeder Col. Leonard Childers by the Duke of Devonshire, who did not race him until he was six years old.

He had a flashy blaze and stood 15.2 hands, which was upstanding for his time. He only had six starts for six wins before being retired to stud on the Duke’s Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire. The Duke received an offer for the colt, so the story goes, for the ‘horses weight in gold crowns’, which he refused.

He died at Chatsworth aged 26 in 1741 after passing on his genes to many successful progeny, which included the dam of the great thoroughbred racehorse and stallion Herod who was foaled in 1758. Herod would be responsible for keeping the Byerley Turk sire line alive.

In January 2012 “Science Daily” in England announced ‘Scientists have traced the origin of the ‘speed gene’ in thoroughbred racehorses back to a single British mare that lived in the United Kingdom around 300 years ago.

They did this by extracting DNA samples from the skeletal remains of 12 celebrated thoroughbred stallions born between 1764 and 1930.

According to co-author Dr. Mim Bower from the University of Cambridge, UK, “The findings point to a British mare as the most likely single founder of the original ‘speed gene’ because …prize stallions of the 17th and 18th centuries had two copies of the T type speed gene variant (T:T) which is linked to greater stamina.

In England three Foundation Stallions were progenitors of the modern thoroughbred breed, as we know it today.

They were Herod, (seen at left) a direct descendant of both the Byerley Turk and the Darley Arabian and Matchem (seen at right), who was by the Godolphin Arabian.

The final sire Eclipse was also undefeated during his racing career winning all his 18 races, supposedly without ever being whipped or spurred, and was far superior to all competition.

Although never the leading stallion of his day Eclipse (painted with his saddle on) was a phenomenal success as a Sire. Foaled during the solar eclipse on April 1, 1764, the grandsire of his dam was The Godolphin Arabian.

Eclipse sired over 344 winning racehorses and many of his sons and daughters produced champions. The Royal Veterinary College in England determined in 1970 that nearly 80% of all thoroughbred racehorses at the time had Eclipse in their pedigree. That percentage has increased over time and more recently it has been estimated Eclipse is not only somewhere in the pedigree, but a tail-male ancestor of ‘95% of contemporary thoroughbreds’ or of ‘nearly every living thoroughbred’, which is pretty impressive.

In the eighteenth century ‘races were between two horses competing over multiple heats, at distances of between two to four miles, and repeated until a horse had won the event twice or ‘distanced’ the opponent. Horses did not race until they were five or six years old, and then only two or three times in their lives. This is consistent with these horses being T:T types.,” said Dr. Bower.

Man O’War, an outstanding and powerful sire at stud

In the United States perhaps no thoroughbred horses have ever captured the public imagination like War Admiral and Seabiscuit. War Admiral was a son of the horse considered the greatest thoroughbred of all time; Man o’ War and so could trace his male line back through his sire to The Godolphin Arabian.

War Admiral was a ‘Triple Crown’ winner, which means one of the trio of races that he won was a ‘Derby’, in his case The Kentucky Derby. He was a sleek elegant horse whose legs were so strong that at Belmont, in the third leg of the Triple Crown at the bell, he bounded so powerfully onto the course out of the gate that his hind feet overran his front, and the toe of his hind shoe gouged into his right fore hoof.

He left behind an inch-square chunk of his fore hoof on the track. In just ten leaps, though, he was beyond the entire field. By race’s end, he had left a trail of blood and beaten horses, cracking the course’s track record, which had been held by his father, to become the fourth winner of the coveted Triple Crown.

Seabiscuit was on the other hand an ungainly rival. An undersized and overlooked thoroughbred race horse, whose unexpected successes made him a hugely popular sensation in the United States near the end of the Great Depression. The ‘biscuit’ had the ‘glistening muscles of a warrior’, was renowned for overeating and over sleeping, for usually racing sluggishly at the back of the pack, relying on his endurance and an incredible burst of speed at the end to win.

The two horses War Admiral and Seabiscuit engaged in a ‘match race’ winner takes all race at Baltimore’s Pimlico Racecourse on November 1, 1938, that many racing aficionados now considered the greatest race in the sport of thoroughbred racing ever. It was just the tonic Americans needed to help them break the grip of the great depression, whose timing varied across nations. (In most countries it started in about 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s or early 1940s).

From the movie Seabiscuit, Photo © Universal/Everett/ Rex Features

From the movie Seabiscuit, Photo © Universal/Everett/ Rex Features

The press played on regional rivalries. The the preference of Depression-era Americans was for the underdog and if a horse like Seabiscuit could triumph over the worst hardships, many Americans must be feeling at the time, so could they. “The whole country was divided into two camps,” noted journalist David Boone at the time “If the issue were deferred another week, there would be a civil war between the War Admiral Americans and the Seabiscuit Americans”

Everyone picked War Admiral to win, but changing tactics, Seabiscuit’s trainer deliberately woke his charge up early in the morning and taught him a new trick – to ‘bolt’ at the sound of a bell.

He took the lead from the start and although War Admiral caught him and they ran stride for stride at the top of the straight Seabiscuit, with great endurance and turn of speed surged ahead winning by four lengths. The famous race was reconstructed in the 2003 movie Seabiscuit.

Phar Lap was Australia’s thoroughbred champion of the depression era, whose speed, stamina and big heart caught the Australian public up as one as he burned up the turf, becoming the third highest stakes winner in the world. Foaled in New Zealand in 1926 and raced in Australia, Phar Lap dominated the racing scene.

Phar Lap’s victory in the 1930 Melbourne Cup, in the midst of the Depression, elevated him to the status of national hero. Taken to America, where it was hoped he would become a huge stakes winner, after winning the Agua Caliente Handicap in 1932 in fine style just days later he suddenly and mysteriously died. The Australian public was gutted.

After preparations of the hide by a New York City taxidermist, his stuffed body came home and was placed on display in the Australia Gallery at Melbourne Museum.

His skeleton went off to New Zealand and his physically huge heart, which weighed 6.2 kg against that of a normal horse 3.2 kg, was donated to the Institute of Anatomy in Canberra where today people still flock to see it. Why was it so big. Other successful racehorses have been found to have abnormally large hearts too. Research has uncovered a genetic anomaly, named ‘the X-Factor’, which is passed down through the female line, and originates in the daughters of Eclipse.

It was not until 2008, through examination of hair samples from Phar Lap’s mane that a forensic team at the Melbourne Museum proved that some 30 – 40 hours before his death Phar Lap had been given a massive dose of arsenic.

Who was responsible? We will probably never know.

200 + years now separates the modern Australian Arabian horse from the arrival of his ancestors in Australia, a country that had no indigenous equine population. The First Fleet of 1788 from England brought a small group of horses to the colony collected on the sea journey at Capetown.

Given the diverse origins of the horses of the Cape at that time, probably the new arrivals carried some Arab blood in their veins.

Over the next period of history until the mid-18oo’s, many horses of oriental extraction – some of Persian and Arabian blood from India – contributed to the foundation stock of the new colony. Some breeders brought horses directly from Arabia.

There are over 100 such stallions listed in the “Australian Stud Book” Their progeny went into racing and general stock work and were also exported to India becoming remounts for the British Army. They were also used for racing and polo.

One of the most influential stallions known as “Old Hector” was imported in 1806 from Calcutta. He originally belonged to Colonel Arthur Wellesley, England’s famous Duke of Wellington who won the Battle of Waterloo against Napoleon.

In early Australia a “blood horse” was an Arabian horse. Arabian sires are recorded in Volume One of the AJC’s Australian Stud Book, along with their progeny.

After 1878 no other Arabian horses were admitted until 1891 when Sir James Penn Boucaut, a Judge of the Australian Supreme Court and Premier of South Australia imported an Arab stallion and two mares. A decade later he bought in two more mares and together they formed a nucleus of thoroughbreds for the future until the stud was dispersed in 1908.

The most significant Arab stallion imported into Australia was in 1925. Shahzada sired over 40% of the horses entered in the first Volume of “The Australasian Arab Horse Stud Book”, which finally appeared in 1960. In the meantime some very fine horses “fell between the cracks”.

There has been world-wide resurgence of Arab bloodlines following successful Conventions in the US [1983], UK [1985], Australia [2000] and the UK [2002]. The 198O’s saw Australia embrace the latest phenomenon from overseas – the stallion El Shaklan. His son and Australian import Amir El Shaklan sired Fairview Klassiqu, which was crowned 1997 US National Champion Stallion.

“International recognition at this level was certainly the stuff of dreams” said his owner Quentin Naylor, “but it was also a very effective way of showcasing the complex and powerful pedigree of this stallion.”

Derby Day wherever it is being run in the world today is considered ‘the best single event day of thoroughbred horse racing’.

Since she was a small child England’s Queen Elizabeth II (1926 -) has been a great horse admirer, owner of champion thoroughbred horses and a rider who has invested her time, energy, expertise and wealth in what was previously known as ‘the sport of kings’.

The Queen loves Royal Ascot and is also acknowledged as a skilled breeder and owner, who often manages to visit horse farms during international trips that are otherwise filled with more formal events.

In Australia at Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne annually the Melbourne Cup carnival has become one of the world’s biggest thoroughbred racing carnivals in the world.

The Victoria Derby is an elite event, attracting the very best three year old racehorses, who today come from all over the world.

The fillies racing in the field however have to also compete with the fashionable fillies on the field, who are wearing the latest in fashion finery.

For the fashionable fillies on the field traditionally Black and White is the prominent colour at Derby Day with men wear a grey morning suit, a peacock vest and pin stripe pants, all inherent traditions from England.

For the fillies actually racing in the field fashionable coat colors vary today from bay, to dark bay from chestnut to black or gray; roans are seen only rarely.


Carolyn McDowall, aged 16 at Randwick with a yearling for sale.

White markings are frequently seen on both the face and legs.

Horses with four white stockings have long been considered ‘unlucky’, even among serious horse traders.

This stems from an old rhyme no one seems to know the origin of but says

One white foot, buy him
Two white feet, try him
Three white feet, look well about him
Four white feet, do without him…

Something personally, I could never do… horses have been integral to my life…

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012 – 2016




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