Consider this: the Thoroughbred as a breed is only a few decades older than America as a country. Now compare that to the first known horse, estimated to have lived around 55 million years ago. Rather young breed, wouldn’t you say?
The Thoroughbred was made to run, fueled with Arabian blood and English broodmares, beginning in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. A breeding process that began with just three foundation stallions now extends into many other breeds and disciplines outside of racing.
Today the horse racing industry plays to a $21 billion audience in the United States alone, but how did the the Thoroughbred come to America and where can we see the legacy of the breed outside of racing?
The First Thoroughbreds In America
With the British colonization of America came the need for the same kinds of entertainment already popular in Great Britain, particularly horse racing. The first track was established in 1665 in Long Island, called Newmarket after the course in England. The track featured races between wealthy locals and required a horse to run multiple heats over the two mile track.
The first Thoroughbred to make it to America was named Bulle Rock. He arrived in Hanover County, Virginia, in 1730 at the age of 21 from Great Britain. Only a generation removed from the first foundation sires, he was the product of a Byerley Turk Mare and the Darley Arabian.
For some perspective, the same year Bulle Rock arrived in America, the Godolphin Arabian had just been gifted to King Louis XV and had yet to make to England where he went on to become the third foundation sire. It was still a time when the Thoroughbred as a breed was very much in its infancy. Over the next 45 years prior to the American Revolution, Bulle Rock was the first of 186 Thoroughbreds who would be imported to the colonies, essentially forming the deepest roots of American Thoroughbred racing.
The East Coast ports of Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina were especially popular destinations in the colonies for horses, including the valuable and highly sought after Thoroughbred. In 1724 the Reverend Hugh Jones noted in The Present State of Virginia, and a short view of Maryland and North Carolina that Virginians “are such Lovers of Riding that almost every ordinary Person keeps a Horse; and I have known some spend the Morning in ranging several Miles of Woods to find and catch their Horses only to ride two or three miles to Church, the Court-House, or to a Horse-Race…”
The first Thoroughbred race in North America is often credited to Maryland Governor Samuel Ogle, who held a race between Thoroughbreds “in the English style” at Annapolis in 1745.
A newspaper article in the Virginia Gazette announced the rules of one race to be held in Yorktown in 1752. At the time horses were still required to run in four-mile heats, the winner of two heats taking the prize.
“To be RUN for, at York, on Thursday next,
A Purse of Sixty Three Pistoles, four Mile heats, the best two in three, the Rider to weigh 135 lbs to start at One o’Clock, to rest half an Hour between each Heat.”
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe were all avid horse racing fans and breeders, and also native Virginians. Washington in particular was known for his expert horsemanship and was known to fox hunt while Jefferson bred Thoroughbreds at his home in Monticello and used several as his personal horses.
Thoroughbreds In America After the Revolutionary War
The onset of the American Revolution brought an understandable pause to the importing of Thoroughbreds from Great Britain but breeding continued in the colonies and importing continued following the war.
Following the war in the late 1780s two of the most influential American Thoroughbred sires were imported from England – Messenger (a foundation stallion of the American Standardbred) and Diomed. Diomed won the inaugural Epsom Derby in 1780 and was sire to Sir Archy, whose product Lexington has one of the more interesting stories of any American Thoroughbred in the 19th centuries.
Over the next several decades leading up to the Civil War, horse racing continued to be especially popular in American colonies along the East Coast, including Virginia, New York, Maryland, but was also extending west and south to Kentucky and the Louisiana Territories.
When the Civil War broke out, many horses including Thoroughbreds were forced into military service. One Thoroughbred who was spared from wartime service was named Lexington, the relative of Diomed.
Lexington’s story is an incredibly interesting one that begins with his birth in 1850. Originally named Darley, possibly in homage to his foundation sire, he was born in Kentucky at The Meadows – the farm of Dr. Elisha Warfield Jr. (who, after some research, turns out to be a distant relative of mine). Warfield and his family moved to Lexington in 1790, establishing one of the first stud farms in what is now the horse capital of the United States. Warfield is noted by Thoroughbred Heritage as “one of the most important early figures in Kentucky racing and breeding and one of the founders of the Kentucky Association Race Track.”
Lexington ran his first race as a three-year-old and impressed a group of investors who purchase Darley for $5,000, a value of over $160,000 in today’s dollar, from Dr. Warfield Jr. After the sale he was eventually bought out by a man named Richard Ten Broeck, and Lexington went on to win six of seven career races, losing only once to his half-brother, Lecomte. He was highly regarded for his stamina as races at the time consisted of multiple four-mile heats. Unfortunately, Lexington’s racing career was cut short by a sudden onset of blindness and Broeck sold the horse to stud at Woodburn Farm, owned by R.A. Alexander, for $15,000 in 1856 — the highest price ever paid for a horse at the time.
And then came the Civil War, throwing the country and Kentucky into turmoil and forcing many well-bred horses into battle. To avoid that fate for the going-blind Lexington, Alexander moved a number of his most valuable horses to a farm in Illinois in order to avoid capture by Confederate guerillas and raiding outlaws. Meanwhile during the same period, America’s longest-running track and annual stakes race was established with the Travers Stakes in Saratoga Springs, NY in 1863 and 1864.
The plan to hide such a valuable horse proved successful as Lexington survived the war undetected. He returned home to stud and sired hundreds of foals, leading all American Thoroughbreds in producing winners on the track and earning him the nickname the “blind hero of Woodburn.” Lexington died in 1875 and was originally buried at Woodburn Farms but in 1878 his body was exhumed and his bones were sent to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. In 2010 his bones were sent back to Kentucky to be displayed at the International Museum of the Horse.
Pedigree REcords & An American triple Crown
It wasn’t until 1791 that James Weatherby listed the pedigrees of 387 mares, each of whom could trace their lines back to the three foundation sires, that the General Stud Book was originally published in England. This book served as the primary record and a first attempt at documenting a Thoroughbred’s pedigree from what had largely been an oral tradition only. It served as a perfect resource for American breeders, even though it took them nearly a century to replicate it.
By 1809 England had also established a professional Jockey Club and its own “Triple Crown” — a series of three professional flat races, each with varying lengths, all to be run by the same group of Thoroughbreds. Those races included the 2000 Guineas Stakes, The Epsom Derby, and St. Leger Stakes. Again, this format served as inspiration to racing enthusiasts in America during the latter part of the century.
Following the Civil War, Thoroughbred racing and pedigree tracking in the United States were getting organized on a national scale. The first running of the Belmont Stakes was held in 1867, the following year The American Stud Book was published in 1868, the first Preakness was run in 1873, and the first Kentucky Derby in 1875. Nineteen years later the American Jockey Club was formed in 1894.
Together those three races — the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont — formed America’s own Triple Crown series, a term that wasn’t coined until 1923.
The turn of the 20th Century presented some complications with conservative values beginning to work their way into state legislation, often resulting on betting, gambling, and horse racing bans. You guessed it! That wonderful time in American history otherwise known as temperance.
With tracks closing in the United States, English racing professionals and enthusiasts feared their tracks would be overrun with American-bred Thoroughbreds. To avoid this, the Jersey Act of 1913 was introduced in Great Britain, limiting the registration of any Thoroughbred in the General Stud Book to only horses who could show that every ancestor traced back to the General Stud Book. This effectively excluded most American-bred horses because the 100-year gap between the General Stud Book and the American Stud Book meant that most American horses had at least one or two pairings with native stock not registered in the General Stud Book. The act was repealed in 1949.
While many states were set on banning racing, gambling and drinking, Kentucky’s tracks remained open for business. Drawn to Kentucky’s permissive nature, muti-millionaire gamblers and horse owners flocked to central Kentucky, establishing massive breeding operations and elaborate mansions in Bluegrass State. In a very long story short, this is essentially when and how Kentucky started to become the center of the Thoroughbred universe.
Today Kentucky is home to many of the largest Thoroughbred breeding operations in the world and produces nearly 40% of all Thoroughbreds born in North America in an equine industry valued at more than $23 billion in 2019.
Other massive improvements to the horse racing industry came during the 20th centuries. In 1977 The Jockey Club leveraged advances in medical science and took the first steps of an extensive blood-typing program. From the late 1970s through 2000, every Thoroughbred foal registered in The American Stud Book, and its sire and dame, was blood-typed to ensure parentage verification. Beginning in 2001 the Jockey Club replaced conventional blood-typing with DNA typing using mane hair for parentage verification, a process that provides 99.9% accuracy.
Influence on Other Breeds
The Thoroughbred’s breeding legacy is one that stretches deep into the history of many other popular modern breeds, in particular the Quarter Horse and Standardbred.
Even during colonial times, some horses were more suitable for shorter distances, called “quarter races” for their quarter of a mile length. These horses developed powerful hind legs, giving them remarkable sprinting speed.
Fairfax Harrison, who wrote a study of Virginia racing and was the author of The Equine F. F. Vs., believed the quarter horse was developed through breeding imported English horses with “an infusion of Andalusian blood, derived from the southern Indians…” He thought this crossbreeding explained the “combination of spirit and small size” of the Quarter Horse.
A Thoroughbred named Janus, a grandson of the Godolphin Arabian, is one of the earliest Thoroughbreds of record to have contributed to the breeding of the American Quarter Horse — the breed that is today the most popular in America. Janus is credited with contributing many genes and characteristics that were critical to the development of the breed. His offspring were small, quick, and could be used as a work horse during the week but race in short distances on the weekends. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the early foundation sires of the Quarter Horse emerged and the term “Appendix” was used to refer to a first generation cross between a Thoroughbred and American Quarter Horse. By 1940, the American Quarter Association was formed and is today the largest breed registry in the world.
In addition to Thoroughbred racing, harness racing was also a popular format for horse racing. Horses known as “trotters” began to emerge as a breed distant from its Thoroughbred origins in the late 18th Century. In addition to Diomed, who became a foundation sire for the American Standardbred, Messenger was a gray English Thoroughbred stallion who was imported to the US in 1788 and is best known for producing a great-grandson, Hambletonian 10 from whom all Standardbreds descend today. Hambletonian 10 produced a whopping 1,331 offspring, 40 of which trotted a mile in under 2 minutes and 30 seconds.
A Global Legacy
Today Thoroughbreds can be found in nearly every country of the world with multi-million dollar races in the United States, England, India, the Arab Emirates, New Zealand, and Australia.
But has the American Thoroughbred become a uniquely different breed than its English counterparts? Some authors think so due to breeding for differences in dirt and turf track surfaces. Modern Thoroughbreds are meant to mature at 18 months of age and continue sprinting throughout careers that can span several years, after which many go on to find productive second careers.
Regardless of history the legacy is clear — the Thoroughbred is everywhere you look in the horse world, provided you have the understanding and appreciation to see it.3