Thoroughbred horses have captivated the imagination of equine enthusiasts and average people for generations. Their prowess on the racetrack and “the most exciting two minutes in sports” – as the Kentucky Derby is called – have introduced the breed to millions of people.
Thoroughbred horses are the quintessential racehorse and for good reason. They travel at speeds of 35-40 miles per hour and are agile and athletic enough that they compete in steeplechases – horse races with jumps, in addition to flat racing.
However, Thoroughbreds are so much more than racehorses. The British aristocracy and royals founded and nurtured the breed for the purpose of racing. But many equestrian sports today include Thoroughbreds. We see them in dressage, jumping, polo, trail, and many other disciplines.
History of the Thoroughbred Horse
Three stallions were imported to England in the late 1600s and early 1700s from the Mediterranean Middle East. They used the owners’ names for the horses. The Byerly Turk arrived in 1689, the Darley Arabian arrived shortly after 1700, and the Godolphin Barb (also called the Godolphin Arabian) arrived in 1730. Despite the names, all three were likely Arabian horses.
These three stallions formed the basis of what is today’s Thoroughbred. Horses in England were strong but lacked the spirit and endurance of the three imported stallions. The aristocracy and royals primarily bred the horses. They had the time and money needed to continuously improve their horses through selective breeding. The racetrack was used to test the horses. In fact, this is how horse racing earned its nickname the sport of kings.
James Weatherby published the first studbook in 1791 and it included 387 mares that all traced back to the Byerly Turk, Darley Arabian, and Godolphin Barb. Weatherby’s descendants still publish the studbook for the English Jockey Club.
Bulle Rock was a son of the Darley Arabian. He was the first Thoroughbred imported to the United States. The 21-year-old stallion arrived in Virginia in 1730, and more Thoroughbreds followed. The American Studbook was first published in 1873. Maintaining the integrity of the studbook is one of the purposes of each Jockey Club.
First, let’s start with the fact that Thoroughbreds are beautiful horses. They are tall, lean, athletic, intelligent, and spirited. Their incredible feats on the racetrack have tuned average people into horse owners and equestrians.
A few key characteristics differentiate the Thoroughbred from other breeds. The bones in their legs are short, this is one of the reasons they can go so fast. They also have long shoulders and short backs, another reason they can go fast. Their speed and power come from their hindquarters. Thoroughbreds have long muscles between the hip and thigh bones and the hips are generally wide. Aside from that, they have delicate heads, a feature they inherited from the Arabian horse. The broad chest allows adequate oxygen intake during a race. Thoroughbreds weigh around 1,000 pounds and have sensitive skin. Common colors are bay, brown, black, chestnut, and gray.
The Original Set of Big Data
The Jockey Club probably is not what most people think of when they hear the words big data. In fact, they could be the stewards of the original set of big data. The Jockey Club started their studbook in England, and then as the breed spread throughout the world, each country set up its own studbook. So, that is about 250 years of data and 230 years with published stud books.
The Jockey Club in the United States is the largest and has the most data. It tracks millions of horses dating back as far as the breed’s history here. Data sets include pedigree information and daily racing statistics. This creates a complete picture of each horse. In fact, the Jockey Club has some of the most sophisticated data software in the world.
The Thoroughbred Horse Today
Horseracing has become a powerful industry in the United States and in many other countries. Alone, it generates millions in revenue and supports countless jobs. The infrastructure supported by the Thoroughbred horseracing industry contributes billions more to the economy.
There is a dark side to the industry, one many of us have heard about in recent years. Deaths have occurred on racing and training tracks. People who only want to win can push horses too hard. The same integrity that started the breed is at the heart of most of the Thoroughbred industry though. That is the desire to selectively breed the best horses and create exceptional athletes.
Here’s the thing, Thoroughbreds love to run and race. They were bred and born to do it. The incredible talent and achievements of horses like Secretariat, Man O’ War, Seattle Slew, Cigar, American Pharoah, Smarty Jones, and countless others is not something you can force a horse to do. All the big data available on Thoroughbreds still cannot quantify that extra something special that separates the champions from the average horses. Those that breed and own Thoroughbreds are seeking that special spark in their horses.
Finally, multiple organizations are ensuring that Thoroughbreds retired from racing or not suitable for the sport are finding other homes and careers. They are popular mounts in many equine disciplines and will continue providing us with the most exciting two minutes in sports or a day of enjoyment at a dressage or jumping show.
Sources: The Jockey Club, American Museum of Natural History, Kentucky Derby, International Museum of the Horse, and Oklahoma State University.