Thoroughbreds are really fast horses today because the breed was specifically developed to satisfy humans’ need for speed in the 17th century. Although not all racehorses are thoroughbreds, they do comprise a large percentage of the racers at most North American tracks, and we can thank the English aristocracy and their selective breeding programs for creating this reality. The UK horse breeders’ dedication is still yielding results as their champions’ offspring are still winning our modern horseraces.

Thoroughbred horses are probably the best known horseracing breed because so many legendary champions that share their phenotype. American Triple Crown winners Sir Barton (1919), War Admiral (1937), Count Fleet (1943), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), American Pharoah (2015), and Justify (2018) are all thoroughbred horses. Canada’s most famous Thoroughbred racehorse, Northern Dancer, won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Queen’s Plate in 1964, then went on to become an influential sire of many future champions.

History of the Thoroughbred horse

All modern Thoroughbred horses trace their origins back to three Middle Eastern stallions imported into England in the late 1600s. These three foundation sires were the Byerley Turk (1680), the Darley Arabian (1704), and the Godolphin Arabian (1729) which is sometimes called the Godolphin Barb.

Genetic studies completed at the University of Florida have yielded some surprising revelations about the Arabian breed, including the likelihood that the founding “Arabians” that gave rise to the Thoroughbred breed were more Far East Asian than previously believed.

The Byerley Turk, sometimes written as Byerly Turk, was by some accounts captured at the Battle of Buda (1686) and was brought to England by the Duke of Berwick. Other sources speculate he was one of three Turkish stallions captured at the Battle of Vienna. Regardless, he came from the other side of Europe and was considered a great prize, a spoil of war.

Godolphin Arabian

The Godolphin Arabian, oil painting on canvas by George Stubbs

The Darley Arabian was imported to England by Thomas Darley, a British Consul and merchant who acquired the animal from Fedan Bedouins after meeting Sheikh Mirza II in the Syrian desert outside Aleppo. One story relates how Darley had arranged to purchase the yearling for 300 golden sovereigns, but when the Sheikh refused to sell, he paid English sailors to sneak onshore at night and horse-nap their prize. They smuggled him out of Smyrna and eventually to England, where he arrived in 1704.

The Godolphin Arabian was foaled in Yemen around 1724. He moved several times before reaching England and there are varied accounts of his travel to Europe by way of Syria and then Tunis. The horse was a Royal gift in 1728, given as tribute between kings from the bey of Tunis to Louis XV of France. Vicomte de Manty, a contemporary observer described the unique qualities of a horse he called “Shami,” but who’s called “Scham” in other historical texts.

After the rough sea voyage across the Mediterranean Sea, the gift horse did not appear optimal physically, and the King of France was not impressed. Some accounts even suggest that Scham was relegated to ferrying drinking water in Paris, or was employed as a carthorse in the Royal baggage train, but this is unlikely. His greatness was recognized by a British Member of Parliament named Edward Coke who pried him from the French monarch’s stables. Coke imported him back to England to stud at Longford Hall in Derbyshire sometime before 1733. When Coke died, in his last will and testament he bequeathed ‘ye Arabian’ a very valuable stud horse, to Roger Williams, who was the proprietor of the St. James’s Coffee House. This gentleman in turn sold the Arabian to the 2nd Earl of Godolphin who placed him at Babrahan where he could continue to ‘cover mares’ (reproduce) until his death on Christmas Day 1753.

The Godolphin Arabian was the leading sire in Great Britain and Ireland in 1738, 1745 and 1747. It was in the late 1730s that he was mated with the chestnut daughter of Bald Galloway, a horse of some renown. The fine mare named Roxana, or Lady Roxana, mated with the Godolphin Arabian and gave birth to Lath, a legendary horse who went on to win the Queen’s Plate nine out of nine times at the Newmarket races in England. The second colt from this pair was Cade, and the third was Regulus. All three stallions had the same distinctive colouring as their sire, a gold-touched bay, and all had the same small build and high-crested conformation. All three were exceptionally fast horses who won many races and went on to sire many other winners. This was the start of the Godolphin Arabian’s prowess as a racing stud, and he spent the rest of his days as the Earl of Godolphin’s prize stallion, bred to England’s finest mares. A gravestone marks his final resting spot under the archway of the stable block of Wandlebury House.

Horseracing flourished in England during the reign of Charles II and continued in the Age of Queen Anne, and the offspring from these three imported horses were consistent winners at the racetrack. Horse breeders in the United Kingdom sought these bloodlines and the term “thro-bred” was first used to describe these race-bred horses in 1713.

Despite English aristocracy celebrating these distinctly different horses, and recognizing their superiority at the track, it wasn’t until 1791 that James Weatherby, through his own research and by consolidating a number of privately kept pedigree records, published the first volume of the General Stud Book. That’s because the early breeding records were sparse and frequently left incomplete, it being the custom not to name a horse until it had proven its quality. So it was a monumental task to compile the first index, and even more remarkable that Weatherby managed to list the pedigrees of 387 mares, each of which could be traced back to Eclipse, a direct descendant of the Darley Arabian, or to Matchem, a grandson of the Godolphin Arabian, or Herod, whose great-great grandsire was the Byerly Turk. The General Stud Book is still published in England by Weatherby and Sons, secretaries to the English Jockey Club.

When did Thoroughbreds come to America?

Kyle Carter and Madison Park were part of the silver medal Canadian Eventing team at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

The first Thoroughbred to arrive in the United States was Bulle Rock in 1730. As called “Bullyrock”, he was a bay son of the Darley Arabian and said to be out of a mare by the Byerley Turk, although his maternal lineage is questioned by some sources.

Bulle Rock was imported to America by a merchant mariner named James Patton, and was later owned by a Samuel Gist of Hanover County, Virginia Colony. Already 21 years old in 1730, Bulle Rock was thought to be an older horse by the time he arrived in America. Regardless, he mated with 39 English or Spanish mares, and many of the resulting fillies were in turn mated with other imported English stallions. His reputation was made by the descendants of one of his daughters, who was owned by the Belair Stud, an influential breeding farm founded by Provincial Governor of Maryland Samuel Ogle in 1747 in Collington, Prince George’s County, Maryland.

One of the Godolphin Arabian’s sons, a horse named Janus, sometimes called Little Janus, was imported to North Carolina colony in 1756. He was shorter than normal, standing just over 14 hands, and he was very stout, and very fast. His progeny proved very proficient at running the famous American quarter mile races, and his genetics helped to define the physique of the American Quarter Horse.

Regulus, the previously-mentioned third son of Lady Roxanne from the Godolphin Arabian, was foaled in 1739 and was undefeated in his racing career. He sired many successful racehorses including Fearnought, who was imported to Virginia in 1764. Fearnought is notable because some of his sons were excellent in battle during the Revolutionary War.

After the American Revolution in 1776, Kentucky and Tennessee became the horse breeding centers of the new Republic in an age when horse racing was among the most popular recreations for both rich and poor Americans. As the sport continued to evolve here in North America, the traditional four mile and multiple-heat format races gradually changed to shorter races of just 1.5 miles.

How big is a Thoroughbred horse?

Thoroughbreds are a medium-sized horse breed. The typical Thoroughbred ranges from 15.2 to 17.0 hands (62 to 68 inches, 157 to 173 cm) high, averaging 16 hands (64 inches, 163 cm). Thoroughbreds are not especially broad. The breed has nicely-defined heads with long necks and sloping shoulders. They have high withers and deep-chested lean bodies with muscular hindquarters and fine long legs.

How fast can a Thoroughbred horse run?

The fastest recorded speed for a Thoroughbred horse is 70.8 km/h (44 mph). To put that in perspective, the average horse gallops at about 43 km/h (27 mph). This is not, however, the fastest speed recorded by a horse. That honour goes to a Quarter Horse which holds the record at 88km/hr (54.6 mph), a breed that tends to do better in short sprints, while thoroughbreds are prized for winning longer races of a mile or more.

The record for 1½ miles is 2:22.8, which converts to 37.82 mph. This feat was accomplished by a 3-year-old Thoroughbred named Hawkster at Santa Anita Park in California in 1989.

Secretariat set the 1 1/2 mile record as a three-year-old in the Belmont Stakes Triple Crown race. His time for the race was 2:24, shattering the old record by more than two seconds. Secretariat won the race by over 30 lengths, and that match is often recognized as the most significant performance of the 20th century by any North American racehorse, thoroughbred or otherwise.

What colour are Thoroughbred horses?

Thoroughbred horses are usually solid bay, brown, chestnut, black, grey, or roan in colour. While palomino and true white colouring is possible, they are very rare. Thoroughbred horses may have white face markings and white leg markings.

How much does a Thoroughbred racehorse cost?

The average sales price of a thoroughbred racehorse in Canada is about $70,000 which is much higher than other horses. Thoroughbred prices rise and fall with the state of the economy and that’s because they’re directly connected to the sport of horseracing which does better in good business climates. When racing purses are larger, thoroughbred prices rise.

The value of any horse depends on their breed, pedigree and conformation. The price for a two-year-old thoroughbred racehorse in training can run as high as $90,000 and that’s because at that young age, they have their whole careers ahead of them.

Thoroughbreds are also more expensive to keep than normal horses. The purchase price of a thoroughbred is just the beginning, if racing, as then there are monthly training fees, vet and farrier bills, and transportation costs to be considered.

Are Thoroughbreds good for beginners?

Thoroughbreds are not especially well-suited for new riders, the same way sports cars are not the smartest choice for new drivers. Thoroughbreds were developed for speed, and they’re greatly prized for their athletic abilities. They’re intelligent animals who’re brave and possess incredible agility, speed and stamina. But they’re also classified as ‘hot-blooded’ which means they’re bold and spirited and after years of racing may have trouble adjusting to other lifestyles. For this reason, a thoroughbred may be more horse than a beginner can handle.

What other uses do Thoroughbreds have besides horseracing?

While most Thoroughbreds are raised and trained for racing, some stock proves unsuccessful or not especially suited to the experience of being at the racetrack. These young horses are very often retrained and have successful careers in other disciplines. Even speedy horses that have won races and have been racing for years with many illustrious wins can be retrained later in life to excel as eventers, hunter/jumpers, and perform in dressage or as fast mounts for polo. Because horseracing is such an established industry, there are many re-homing organizations in North America and other Thoroughbred racing countries to help match off-the-track thoroughbreds (OTTBs) with new owners.

What do Thoroughbreds eat?

Silent Name is the most accomplished American runner by Sunday Silence to ever stand in North America and was Canada’s Champion Thoroughbred Sire in 2018 & 2019.

Thoroughbreds are racehorses and their diets are often strictly monitored and tailored to balance their health, training and purpose. Performance horses need a lot of fuel, around 35,000 calories a day, which is roughly twice as much as a regular horse in a pasture. To ensure top performance on race day, they’re typically fed a high-energy, low-fibre diet all the time. This means they consume fodder which is primarily hay, or some substitute with haylage, and chaff (chopped hay). Racehorse diets are often supplemented with other fiber sources such as grains and sugar beet pellets. The traditional grain for horses is oats, but a lot of trainers today use commercial products that are specifically formulated for racehorses and mix in non-saturated fats and fermentable fiber. A daily ration of 11 to 14 quarts / liters a day is typical, but bigger horses could require as much as 16 quarts or 15 liters of oats or an oat-like protein per day.

Also interesting is what time of day thoroughbred racehorses eat their food. Most competition barns will have staff feed their performance animals early in the morning, well before dawn, so that they will have time to digest the meal before training begins. They will have a light lunch in mid-morning after some workout or training, and then a larger meal in the early evening before sunset. Their ‘supper’ is the meal to which necessary supplements are added as per individualized feeding programs.

Thoroughbred Racehorse Birthdays

Regardless of what date they are born, Thoroughbreds have an official ‘birthday’ to help standardize races by age group. If born in the Northern Hemisphere, that date is January 1st, and in the Southern Hemisphere it is August 1st. This helps with record keeping and it makes it possible for all admirers to celebrate their horse’s special day.

For more information, visit:
Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society