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Foundation Sires of Horse Racing

Thoroughbred horse racing has a long history in the US, but an even longer one in England. It may shock you to learn that modern Thoroughbreds come from 3 foundation sires – the Darley Arabian, the Byerley Turk, and the Godolphin Arabian.

These horses produced some of the greatest champions of their day, and a few generations is all it took to produce the 3 later founders of the modern Thoroughbred horse – Matchem, Eclipse, and Herod. The early founders were mostly imported foreign warhorses, but they produced offspring incredibly suited to racing when bred with English mares. Eventually, with the 3 later sires, the modern Thoroughbred was established. A horse bred specifically for racing.

When horse racing was first brought to America, it lacked champion Thoroughbreds. This problem was soon remedied with a collection of 4 important sires. The founding sires of American Thoroughbred racing were Diomed, Messenger, Shark, and Medley. They were incredibly important to early American horse breeding, keeping racing alive during the period of time when no new studs were being brought in from England, and they each contributed to the production of American champions.

The Original Sire-Line Founders

The Darley Arabian
The Darley Arabian was bought in Syria by Thomas Darley in 1704. He stood 15 hands tall and was considered a very attractive specimen. As a stud at Aldby Park, he sired many successful horses of the time, and his bloodline is one of the most dominant. An estimated 95% of male horses trace their line back to this horse. Possibly the greatest achievement of the Darley Arabian was that his offspring led to Eclipse, the most important of the later foundation sires in terms of achievements in both racing and breeding.

The Byerley Turk
The Byerley Turk was the earliest foundation sire, brought to Britain after Captain Robert Byerley captured him at the Battle of Buda in 1686 – or so it is said. As a warhorse, the Turk served Byerley throughout the rest of his career, including at the Battle of the Boyne. The Byerley Turk was retired to stud after his owner gave up the military life, and he became an influential sire.

While the line almost died out in the 18th century, the success of his descendant Herod brought it back, and the Byerley Turk line produced champions for many years. Modern horses rarely trace their sire-lines back to the Byerley Turk now, but he has had a massive influence on thoroughbred racing, especially considering his prolific descendant Herod sired Diomed, one of the American foundation sires.

The Godolphin Arabian
The Godolphin Arabian, occasionally called the Godolphin Barb, is named for his most famous owner, the Earl of Godolphin. Possibly the most important of the early foundation sires to American horse racing, many of the American foundation sires had strong connections to the Godolphin Arabian line. It is interesting to note that while more horses can trace their sire line back to the Darley Arabian, the Godolphin Arabian is commonly found in the dam lines of modern Thoroughbreds. Many champions have descended from the Godolphin Arabian and his get, which is surprising given that he was not the prized horse of his stable at first.

In fact, there is a story that says the Godolphin Arabian was only used for breeding after a highly prized stallion had failed to stud. When the Godolphin Arabian produced champions like Cade and Lath, he soon became a valued stud, and his influence on the sport of horse racing is really only surpassed by the Darley Arabian. This founding sire is particularly important to American horseracing, as Messenger was descended from his sire-line, a horse that essentially founded the Standardbred harness racing horse breed.

Modern Sire-Line Founders

Matchem came from Cade, a champion son of the Godolphin Arabian, and an example of what the Thoroughbred racehorse would become. Matchem’s record was incredibly dominant for his day, at 10-2-0 in 12 races, and this soon led to a successful stint at breeding. Matchem was responsible for champions such as Conductor, Hollandaise, and Pumpkin, which may be why the Godolphin Arabian appears in dam lines more than sire-lines – Hollandaise was a mare, while Conductor was the only stud of note to come out of Matchem, though he had quite a few successful daughters.

Eclipse is the most well-known foundation sire in horseracing. This is due to races like the Eclipse Stakes, the Eclipse Awards for North American racehorses, and the phrase “Eclipse first and the rest nowhere” which is used to describe any incredibly dominant performance. Around 80% of modern Thoroughbreds are thought to have Eclipse in their lineage, which is part of the reason the Darley Arabian has had such a massive influence.

Eclipse was the great great grandson of the Darley Arabian, and the most dominant horse of his day, bar none. In 19 races, Eclipse did not give up a single loss, and he had to be retired to stud because of the lack of competition. Luckily for us all, he was as successful in breeding as he was on the racetrack. Eclipse sired hundreds of winning horses that went on to triumph in such important English races as the Epsom Derby and the Epsom Oaks. Of these winners that came from Eclipse, the most famous was Pot-8-os who won 34 races and continued Eclipse’s habit of siring champions.

King Herod, or just Herod as he was later known, was the horse that kept the Byerley Turk line alive. He is not known for being a champion in his own right, but he was the sire of many excellent horses. For 8 years running, Herod was the leading sire in Great Britain, meaning his progeny were collectively the most successful in terms of winnings. Cementing his reputation further and expanding his line were Highflyer and Sir Peter Teazle, two of his sons that also held the reputation of being leading sire for long stretches of time.

In the modern day, not many racehorses trace their sire line to Herod when compared to the number claiming descent from Eclipse or Matchem, but there was a time when horses from this sire-line dominated the racecourses of Britain and the world. This founding sire is particularly important to American horseracing, as Messenger was descended from his Herod, and Messenger essentially founded the Standardbred harness racing horse breed.

The Founding Sires of American Horse Racing

Diomed Diomed was foaled in England in 1777, and he enjoyed a brilliant early career, but it soon began to pale. He spent years as an underrated stud in England, but at the age of 21 he was sold to Colonel James Hoomes, who took him to America and began to breed him there. At this advanced age, Diomed began a breeding career that produced the greatest American champions of the day, and the horse built up a national reputation for his excellent progeny. His greatest heir was Sir Archy, who also bred many champion racehorses, including legends like Timeloen, Lady Lightfoot, and Sir Charles. The effect of Diomed on early American horse racing is part of the reason the Byerley Turk line was so strong for so long, as Diomed came from the Byerley Turk via Herod and his son Duroc.

Messenger Messenger was an incredibly important sire to the Standardbred line of American harness racers, but not quite as important as a Thoroughbred breeder. For Standardbreds, he was the original sire, as his great grandson Rysdyk’s Hambletonian was the major foundation for that breed. Messenger had very strong ties to the Godolphin Arabian, Cade, Matchem, and Regulus. In terms of his influence on Thoroughbreds in America, Messenger was the sire of Duroc, a successful horse that went on to sire American Eclipse. American Eclipse was named for the great champion Eclipse, and he had a level of success on American racetracks that compared to his namesake.

Medley Medley was foaled in 1776, bred by Lord Grosvenor. In his racing days, he was owned by Sir John Lade, and he won 11 plates during his 4 year racing career in England. Afterwards, he was sold to the firm of Hart and McDonald, who initially intended to sell him on, but then Malcolm Hart decided to keep the stallion. For 8 years after, Medley was put to stud until his death at 16. He sired champions such as Tayloe’s Bellair II, Gimcrack, and Tayloe’s Quicksilver. He also sired many successful dams, which is possibly his greatest contribution to American Thoroughbred racing.

Shark Shark was foaled in 1771 in Great Britain, and was transported to Virginia in 1786. Not much is known of Shark, as his offspring was not quite as prominent as the other American founders, but his contribution along with that of the other 3 founders kept Thoroughbred racing alive in America during wartime with Britain. His greatest contribution was in his breeding with mares out of Diomed, and Shark’s get included many successfully producing mares.

Other sires and dams have had major influences on American Thoroughbred racing and horse racing as a whole. However, these horses are the stock upon which all modern racers have been drawn upon, and their influence has continued even as the needs of Thoroughbred horse breeders have changed throughout the centuries.

From such humble beginnings, an entire global industry was formed.

Ed’s note: At online racebooks you can now bet on any horse race the world over. On some days you can literally bet on horse races for 24 hours straight by following the daylight hours from the international dateline, around the planet. From New Zealand to Australia, to Europe, the UK and then the United States – you could bet on all of these tracks in a single day. Horse racing fans back in the 1700s could never have envisioned what their sports of Kings would become!

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