The SAUDI CUP is a desert homecoming for the thoroughbred
The Saudi Cup is a desert homecoming for the thoroughbred. But, in truth, this great new international horserace celebrates a great old international race of horse – a breed formed by imperialism… and steeped in mystery
It is not just the great new prize of the 21st century that summons racehorses from all round the world to the desert. There is also an accompanying call back to their roots, for each and every thoroughbred famously traces its ancestry to one of just three founding fathers, imported to Restoration England from various corners of the Ottoman Empire around 300 years ago.
Two of these direct male lines have been all but eradicated by the one extending from the Darley Arabian, which nowadays accounts for 19 in every 20 thoroughbreds. The Godolphin Arabian and Byerley Turk male lines have been asphyxiated by those proliferating over the past century, in the Darley Arabian cause, from Phalaris – an incredible legacy for a sprinter confined to a skeleton racing programme during the First World War.
This, of course, is just the male line. In terms of genetic material, each foal divides its inheritance 50-50 between its parents and even with a relatively foreshortened view, a pedigree always entwines a complex mesh of influences: within a racehorse’s first five generations, in fact, there are as many as 62 different names.
Enable, the most recent apogee of the Darley Arabian line, is divided by 24 generations from the stallion exported from Aleppo by Thomas Darley in 1704. So when one rewinds to the first pedigrees collated in the General Stud Book, much later that century, you quickly see that the early breed was in fact sown with many diverse seeds.
Few people today realise that the three celebrated founders were, at the time, relatively anonymous among some 200 other stallions imported to England in the century following the regicide of 1649, and known as ‘oriental’. (These horses came from the Arabian Peninsula – ‘Oriental’, clearly, has since come to denote something very different, and the ‘Middle East’ only developed as a term as the Englishmen’s sense of the world expanded, with their own empire, into Asia.) Many of these stallions congregated in North Yorkshire, which became the cradle of the thoroughbred through their collective contribution to the first families catalogued in the Stud Book.
The Darley Arabian arrived in Europe the same year as the first volume of The Arabian Nights. During a pan-European cultural vogue for what they called ‘Turquerie’, equally measurable in coffee or carpets, perhaps the ultimate symbol of imperial chic was the Arabian horse – celebrated for its elegance, courage and intelligence.
In 1684, the diarist John Evelyn watched three desert horses, captured at the siege of Vienna, presented before the entire court of King Charles II in St James’s Park. ‘They trotted like Does, as if they did not feele the ground,’ he wrote. ‘Never did I behold so delicate a Creature… in all reguards beautifull & proportion’d to admiration, spirituous & prowd… with all this so gentle & tractable.’
They commanded a corresponding price, 500 guineas sought for the finest of the three, a sum equivalent to more than £1m in today’s money. At a time when English equitation manuals show a decided coarseness in the breeding and handling of crudely utilitarian stock, these stallions were status symbols imbued with the refinement and opulence of an Empire that had been progressively transformed in the esteem of Christian Europe.
The Ottomans were by this time an envied imperial model, having stabilised vast swathes of territory for mercantile and cultural exchange. The Ottoman Empire’s sheer scale can be usefully measured by the journey reputedly made by the Godolphin Arabian in his youth, from Yemen to the stud of the Bey of Tunis. Yemen lies some 600 miles south of Riyadh – home of the great prize that seeks to bring the modern breed full circle – while Tunis is 2,300 miles to the west.
Power across such vast territories was pragmatically devolved from the Sultan to regional control of the main trading routes. But it was in a lawless desert interior that the most coveted breeds of horses would often be traded by nomadic tribesmen. Remarkable enterprise was required by those intrepid diplomats and merchants by whose efforts such animals made their way to Britain, not least as there was a prohibition – albeit enforced more earnestly at some times than others – on the export of purebred Arabians.
Thomas Darley was long described as Queen Anne’s ‘consul’ in Aleppo, but he was in fact a singularly unsuccessful member of a small community of English merchants sharing the Levant Company compound in that ancient city. Most returned home after no more than a decade, having accumulated a fortune, but Darley had been stuck in Aleppo for 18 years, deep in financial difficulty. He seems likely to have made the transaction for the Arabian he sent home to Yorkshire in a nerveless excursion with a single compatriot south of Aleppo in 1702, quite possibly at the lost desert city of Palmyra.
Darley died, poignantly, as the result of a fall from a horse, just a couple of months after the Arabian was stowed on a man o’ war escorting a Levant Company convoy home. But horses of this ilk were in such widespread demand that the one who arrived at the Darley family seat, at Aldby, remained relatively obscure during his lifetime. He covered just a handful of mares every spring, mostly belonging to the family or their kinsmen, and left reliable evidence for only around 20 foals. The Darley Arabian’s prowess would not be grasped until the emergence of a dazzlingly fast son, Flying Childers, after his death.
Laying the foundations of the breed, then, was a work shared with dozens of other stallions and their daughters. And their antecedents were too hopelessly varied to support anything beyond the broadest characterisation. Often they had reached Britain as war booty or diplomatic gifts; or to alter the athletic capacities of cavalry horses, now that gunpowder had shifted the emphasis from bearing the weight of a knight in armour to agility and speed.
Blood favoured for sporting proficiency might be from such nimble Celtic breeds as the Hobby or Galloway. Imported strains from Andalusia, Italy and North Africa were conflated by unscientific labelling, say as ‘jennet’ or ‘Barb’. Identification as Turk or Arabian or Barb would as often reflect a point of embarkation, or even an attempt to exploit fashion, as an actual breed. In principle, a Barb should have originated in North Africa, but sometimes it denoted any swift racer; while the Turkoman, from between the Caspian and Black Seas, would be conflated with a ‘Turk’ emerging from any steppe between the Balkans and Mesopotamia.
The catalyst for the dissemination of these hybrid influences had been the English Civil War, notably through the break-up of the royal stud at Tutbury in Staffordshire. Exotic blood previously monopolised by the monarch was now in private hands and was cultivated by the likes of James Darcy, who acquired several ‘royal mares’ for his stud at Sedbury in North Yorkshire; or by the Buckinghams at Helmsley, either side of an enlightened interval of custodianship during the Protectorate of the 1650s by Cromwell’s commander-in-chief, Sir Thomas Fairfax.
‘Royal mare’ is another of those indeterminate labels that constantly recur in the earliest pedigrees. A royal mare might have been sent across seas and mountains as a gift to the King; or she might have been locally cross-bred by the court studmaster, using an Andalusian cavalry sire and a Hobby mare from Ireland. Sometimes different names were used for the same horse. Other horses had none. We know little about most of the imported Ottoman stallions beyond the names of their English owners, typically minor aristocrats or provincial gentry like the Puritan squires of the Darley clan.
Even those stallions purported to have a full history tended to acquire it through posthumous embroidery, not least in the case of the Darley Arabian himself. Some of the claims about the Godolphin Arabian, supposedly discovered towing a water cart in Paris, are preposterous. There is, moreover, scholarship to suggest that the Byerley Turk, reputedly captured from the Ottomans at the siege of Buda, was actually bred in Yorkshire (albeit as a son of another ‘oriental’ stallion), though it does appear to be true that he served as Captain Byerley’s charger at the Battle of the Boyne.
The true parentage of many significant contributors to the early breed is contentious. Even accepting the record at face value, however, one can very soon get a sense of the mystery, and romance, surrounding these forgotten names. Take the very first sire responsible for extending the Darley Arabian line: not Flying Childers, who proved a disappointing stallion, but his brother, Bartlett’s Childers, whose kinship to a champion qualified him to recycle their genes at stud.
Their mother Betty Leedes was a classic example of the kind of chaotic cross-breeding that underpinned what became viewed – paradoxically enough – as the most scrupulously certified of animal breeds. Her sire Old Careless was considered an exceptional runner, albeit in a form of racing we would barely recognise today, then comprising heats and matches over enormous distances. His dam was listed only as a Barb Mare. Old Careless was by Spanker, himself regarded as the ‘best horse at Newmarket in Charles II’s reign’; a son of Darcy’s Yellow Turk out of the Old Morocco Mare, who was in turn a daughter of the Fairfax Morocco Barb and the splendidly named Old Bald Peg.
Early sources propose that Old Bald Peg may have been of ‘oriental’ parentage. Whatever the family’s origins, its later champions have been globally significant and include the US Triple Crown winner Count Fleet and the hugely influential 1933 Derby victor Hyperion, as well as a British Classic winner as recently as Sariska, in the 2009 Oaks, a direct female line descendant of Old Bald Peg 29 generations before.
For a long time, racehorse breeders clung to the misapprehension that all thoroughbreds descended from purebred Arabian stock, scrupulously corralled by the early Yorkshire nurseries. This simplification has been definitively exposed by science, which has also established strong British and Celtic strains in the modern thoroughbred gene pool.
The breed’s three founding fathers serve largely as usefully legible points on a baffling map. They are like oases that melt away, as you get closer, into the mirages of history. And the trackless expanses between them will remain ever uncharted.