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Thoroughbred horse racing has its roots in seventeenth century England. Horses of so-called Oriental blood, which actually originated from anywhere between and including North Africa and Turkey, were crossed with native British stock, most notably the famed 'Royal Mares'. The result was a new breed, the thoroughbred. These early racehorses were asked to cover a distance of four miles just to complete a single heat. In these contests, the winner was generally the first horse to win two heats. Ordinarily, it was over by the third heat, but occasionally four or even five heats would be required to win. Sprinters were not highly prized.
The first star of the early British turf was Spanker, a son of Darcy Yellow Turk and Old Peg who handily beat all other horses of his day. The names of those defeated and the details of specific events have been forgotten in the mists of time. While Spanker's male line did not survive, his name adorns many early pedigrees, and his blood was an important ingredient in the creation of the thoroughbred.
Spanker sired Old Careless, the broodmare sire of the first great racehorse, Flying Childers. A son of Darley Arabian, one of the three foundation sires of the thoroughbred, Flying Childers was never beaten. Extraordinary feats were credited to the bay stallion, and he was called "Mile a Minute Childers." He sired two significant sons, Blaze and Snip. Blaze, in addition to his contributions to the thoroughbred also became the foundation sire of the Hackney when crossed with mares of Norfolk Roadster blood. Snip sired Snap.
A saying among mid-eighteenth century horse breeders was "Snap for speed and Matchem for truth and daylight." The grandson of Flying Childers excelled as a broodmare sire, and while the male line was not carried on, the contribution was lasting, for Snap sired the dam of Matchem's son Conductor, through whom all modern male line descendants of Matchem trace.
Matchem was from the line of the Godolphin Arabian, and was actually the third of the great linefounders. The first was Herod, an unbeaten bay stallion from the line of the Byerley Turk. While not the first Eastern stallion to be imported, Captain Byerley's charger was the earliest of the three whose male lines survived. Through his son Jigg the Byerley Turk was responsible for the leading sire of the 1720's, Partner. Partner sired Tartar, who in turn sired Herod for the Duke of Cumberland in 1758. Herod's broodmare sire was Blaze, by Flying Childers.
Next came the most famous linefounder, and a horse unequaled in racing history: Eclipse. Also bred by the Duke of Cumberland, Eclipse was foaled on April 1, 1764, during a solar eclipse. His sire was Marske, a male line descendant of the Darley Arabian through Bartlett's Childers, a full brother to Flying Childers. His dam was Spiletta, a successful race mare and the daughter of Regulus, the most famous son of the Godolphin Arabian.
The Godolphin Arabian's male line survived through Matchem, who was sired by Cade, a son of the Godolphin Arabian.
Today, all modern thoroughbreds trace in male line to one of the three linefounding stallions. Herod, Eclipse, and Matchem, the descendants of Byerley Turk, Darley Arabian, and Godolphin Arabian.
By the time Herod, Eclipse, and Matchem were enjoying stud careers, the face of racing was changing. Four mile heats were left to the Americans, and the English had begun racing younger horses and shorter distances, measured in eighths of a mile, or furlongs. The three-year-olds moved into center stage, and the classics were born as the nineteenth century approached.
Most famous was the Espom Derby, conducted every June at Epsom Downs since 1789. The word Derby, which has come to mean 'an important race' in modern English, was born with the inaugural running of the British classic. Lord Derby won out over Lord Brunbridge, saving future boy scouts from building Soap Box Brunbridge cars. In horse racing, a Derby is traditionally for three-year-olds.
The other English classics are the grueling St. Leger Stakes, held at Doncaster in the fall, and the 2,000 Guineas, a mile contest at Newmarket in May. These three races make up the English Triple Crown, which since 1809 has been won only fifteen times.
Other races of significance in England include the Oaks, run for three-year-old fillies on the eve of the Derby, the 1,000 Guineas, also for fillies and run at Newmarket
The two biggest prizes for older horses are the Eclipse Stakes and the Queen Elizabeth and King George IV Stakes. Traditionally, the supreme prize for older horses in Europe is France's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, run at Longchamp in the fall.
Ireland offers its own classics, the Irish Derby, the Irish 2,000 Guineas, and the Irish St. Leger. France, Italy, and most other countries which are home to thoroughbred racing have their equivalents to the English Triple Crown races.
In the United States, three-year-olds compete for a Triple Crown which includes the Kentucky Derby, run since 1875 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky; the Preakness Stakes, at Pimlico in Baltimore, Maryland; and the Belmont Stakes, run at Belmont Park in June.
The Belmont is the oldest of the three, established in 1867, and has always been run the latest. It is currently contested at a mile and a half, although the distance varied in its early history. The winner wears a blanket of white carnations.
The Preakness is currently held on the third Saturday in May, although in the past the date has varied between a week before the Derby and the week following it. It is a mile and three-sixteenths, and the triumphant horse is presented with a blanket of black-eyed susans and the famous Woodlawn Vase.
The Kentucky Derby is currently held on the first Saturday in May, and the horses are asked to cover a mile and a quarter. Early Derbies were contested at a mile and a half; the distance changed in 1896, the year Ben Brush won. The race is nicknamed the Run for the Roses, since the winner is presented with a blanket of red roses.
Eleven horses have won the Triple Crown, including Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. All are members of the Hall of Fame.
Horses become eligible to race at the age of two. This first season of racing is known as their juvenile, or freshman, campaign. Rather than causing confusion by using individual horse's birthdates, all horses have an official January 1 birthdate. This means young horses start their three-year-old, or sophomore, campaign before they are necessarily three calender years old.
When horses reach the age of four, most of the big races available to them are handicap races. This means that the track handicapper assigns weights according to his estimation of each horse's ability in an attempt to give all entries an equal, or at least more equal, chance at victory. Two pounds are held to equal a length, or a fifth of a second. Giving a horse a ten pound advantage over his rival is considered the equivalent of giving him a five length head start. There are handicap races for two and three year olds as well, but at that age a trainer can keep his horse from heavy imposts simply by sticking to races contested at equal weights. This becomes a much harder task for the trainer of an older horse.
Important handicaps include the Metropolitan Handicap, the Brooklyn Handicap, and the Suburban Handicap, which collectively are known as the Handicap Triple Crown. It has only been won by Whisk Broom II, Tom Fool, Kelso, and Fit to Fight. The Santa Anita Handicap, or "Big 'Cap," was for some time the world's richest horse race, worth $100,000 in the 1930's. The Gulfstream Park Handicap, the Donn Handicap, the Saratoga Handicap, the Carter Handicap, and others offer honors in the handicap ranks.
A weight-for-age event is a race in which younger horses carry slightly less weight than their older rivals. In most events, fillies carry five pounds less than colts. Therefore, if a filly is assigned 121 and a colt 124, the filly is said to be the highweight, by scale. She is conceding 'actual weight' if she carries more than the colt.
Races at the high echelon of racing are stakes races, or added-money races, in which the owners pay a stake in order to race. Therefore, the horses who finish "in the money" (first, second, and third) divide the purse (prize money), which is the sum put up by the track plus a share of the entry fees. These shares are the added-money.
In a Futurity, the entries are made well in advance, perhaps even before the horse himself is born. Stallions are nominated to Futurities, and therefore their offspring is eligible provided the entry fees are paid. Futurity races are almost always for two-year-olds.
In a Cup race, the winner receives a gold cup in addition to the purse. Usually a weight-for-age stakes event, a Cup race may also be a handicap. Finally, a Special is usually a winner-take-all race, and may be by invitation only.
Horses at the lowest level of racing compete in the claiming ranks. A claiming race, or selling plate in England, is a race in which every entry is available to be claimed (purchased) for the price indicated. If you enter a horse superior to his rivals in such a race, you will probably win the purse, but lose your horse. This policy keeps even the lowest levels of horse racing competitive.
Every few years, a horse will rise from the claiming ranks to reach a significant level of success. These Cinderella stories capture the public imagination and add to the excitement of the sport. Usually, the said horse was underestimated by his trainer when a mental or physical problem was keeping him from performing at the peak of his ability. Seabiscuit, Stymie, John Henry, Market Wise, and Charismatic are among the most famous examples, although all of their circumstances varied.
In the United States, most races are run on dirt tracks, while in Europe they are run on grass, or the turf. Distances range from sprints, between five furlongs and a mile, up to two miles or sometimes even a bit further. Two-year-olds race shorter distances, and therefore speed is emphasized more in the juvenile division. Often, a sire known for siring exceptional two-year-olds also sires primarily sprinters. He is said to sire "speed" and therefore his offspring are not expected to win at he classic distances of a mile and a quarter or more.
The study of bloodlines is the basis of breeding and evaluating thoroughbreds. A horse is said to be "by" its sire, or father, and "out of" its dam, or mother. A horse's broodmare sire is the sire of its dam. For example: Secretariat by Bold Ruler out of Somethingroyal by Princequillo. He is from the male line of Eclipse. He is from family number two.
Bold Ruler is by Nasrullah. Nasrullah is by Nearco. Nearco is by Pharos by Phalaris by Polymelus by Cyllene by Bona Vista by Bend Or by Doncaster by Stockwell by The Baron by Irish Birdcatcher by Sir Hercules by Pot-8-os by Eclipse. The dams of all these stallions are ignored when giving the tail male line.
The tail female line traces straight back from Somethingroyal. Somethingroyal out of Imperatrice out of Cinquepace, etc. until the taproot mare is reached. The taproot mare is the earliest known female line descendant of the horse, and each is assigned a family number. Old Bald Peg, for example, is number six, although she is the oldest mare in the studbook. When the numbers were assigned, the families were ranked according to how many classic winners they had so far produced, and numbers were thus assigned. In Secretariat's case, one would eventually reach Burton's Barb Mare, the taproot of family number 2.
When discussing the female line, one often refers to the second dam, third dam, etc. Secretariat's second dam would be Imperatrice, his dam's dam. Cinquepace would be his third dam, and so on back.
Thoroughbred racing is a sport full of triumph and heartbreak, with a rich history full of interesting characters, gallant heroes, and Herculean feats. The great ones of racing have come from both aristocratic birth and humble beginnings. They have sprinted and stayed, traveling the country or even the world in pursuit of greatness. They have all taken their own unique paths to the winner's circle.
This text is from the introduction to my book, Paths to the Winner's Circle, which is currently seeking publication. Interested parties may contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for the current status.
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