The Byerley Turk

the True Story of the First Thoroughbred, by Jeremy James

Book review
Extract courtesy of Wakefield Press
ISBN 1-86254-687-8; hardcover; available from booksellers or Wakefield Press.

A pistol had been raised, a shout to ready themselves had gone up, the horses held tight to the bit - very tight to the bit - the pistol fired and two of the horses loosed into a fine turn of speed, while the last, the one carrying the greatest purse, was left standing on his hind legs waving his feet in the air, with Colonel Byerley on his back muttering his prayers - much to the horror of the 6th Dragoon troopers, who could see their money rapidly disappearing before their eyes. These fellows now rushed at him to get the horse off. Poyntz was there first and, slapping the horse across the quarters with a flat of a sword, put the Turk into such a frenzy that he took off very nearly without his rider and in the opposite direction.

Much shouting and cursing and hurling of hats onto the ground followed, while Colonel Byerley wrestled the animal about, pointed him at the tails of the two disappearing contenders now half a league ahead and went thundering off down the track to shouts and howls and yells and curses and men falling to their knees, hands clasped together, wringing out prayers not heard since the time of Elizabeth I, not in these shores at least. Down the lane the horses sped, to cries of woe from troopers of the 6th Dragoons and to the high delight of the Fusiliers and Royal Dragoons and although they agreed to a man later that Colonel Byerley's Turk did, in fact, have the edge on speed, he was such a long way behind Heyford's Barb and Hamilton's Cob as for the race to appear over for him. On and on they sped, the horses' nostrils fully extended, their limbs thrashing sod and air, along the Flying Horse road, turning the corner, up the hill and back toward the public house. The cheering became louder and louder as Colonel Byerley's Turk squeezed the gap, at last narrowing the distance between himself and Hamilton's Cob.

With the end of the race looming it still appeared that no magic on earth could secure Colonel Byerley the King's Plate, and yet on he galloped, gaining lost ground by the stride. On and on the horses thundered and then witnesses beheld a most remarkable thing.

It was as if Byerley's Turk took wing. The ground seemed to fly beneath his feet as though he weighed not a pound. His legs flicked out in front of him and on his back the wind tore at the Colonel's clothes, at his hair, at his face which by now was dark with mud from the horses galloping in front.

Suddenly the great Turk horse went hurtling past Colonel Hamilton's Cob and with the end of the race in sight, he was narrowing the gap on Colonel Heyford's Barb with every stride.

Not a hundred paces lay between them and the end of the course and soon they were galloping neck and neck. Then another kind of energy seemed to fill the limbs of the Turk: as if some magical power overcame him; as if some wondrous elixir coursed in his veins. He shot past the Barb and took the finishing line with a length to spare. The 6th Dragoons went insane with joy.