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The Byerley Turk, the True Story of the First Thoroughbred

The Byerley Turk

The True Story of the First Thoroughbred, by Jeremy James; Wakefield Press, 359pp. RRP $39.95. ISBN 1-86254-687-8.

December 10, 2005

Of the three main "founding fathers" of the thoroughbred breed, the Byerley Turk's line is (in tail-male terms) the least prolific, and up to now his story may well have been the most incorrectly documented of the three.

This new book by Jeremy James explores the horse's early history, based on painstaking research of manuscripts and records in libraries throughout Europe and in Turkey, from whence the famous stallion came.

And famous he was - James has dug up glowing accounts of the horse's prowess as a charger on the battlefield, where afterwards, after surviving many battles against sabre, musket and cannon, he was feted by his unit. All this without a mark on his hide.

The Byerley Turk's story is the oldest of the three foundation sires - he was born in 1678 (the Darley Arabian in 1700, and the Godolphin in 1724). He had the least siring opportunities of the others {"Byerley is not interested in the fees, finding it a rather louche way of earning money ... so he has allowed his treasure to cover mares free of charge."}

James has researched thoroughly the early life of a well-bred horse in the Ottoman empire. How they live, how they are raised and trained, and how world events shape their destiny. Especially that of a well-bred Karaman colt who seems destined for something far greater than the work horses of the day.

In the 17th century a horse was a valuable commodity, a good one even more so.

Into this background of actual events and real people and places, the Turk's story has been woven.

I'll admit when I first started reading this book, I did wonder what I'd gotten into. It's not in the vein of your usual rags-to-riches horse stories - as in the likes of Phar Lap and Seabiscuit. However, it quickly grew on me. And even though the Turk's story is part of racing history, his early days are largely unknown. It was obviously a huge undertaking on the author's part to research the probable background of a horse in the 1680s -- those who like a dash of history with their evening read will not be disappointed.

Seized originally at Vienna by representatives of King James (and not by Colonel Robert Byerley at Buda, as many accounts state) in 1686, the horse and his groom trek as spoils of war the many miles to Calais and then finally cross the channel to England. He is bought by Byerley (a battleground novice) as a war horse where he travels to Ireland and the Battle of the Boyne. During the many months in Ireland he also takes part in a three-horse challenge race (read an extract).

The rest is indeed history - the siege of Limerick in 1691 takes place, and the troops head home. The Turk is "casually" at stud in Yorkshire, enjoying an easy retirement.

Despite covering few well-bred mares (according to the General Stud Book) The Turk is destined to sire a line of racehorses, with the main progenitor of the line being his great-great-grandson Herod (King Herod): “In 1791, James Weatherby, nephew of the first James Weatherby, ... published the first General Stud Book. In this, he laid down the commonly-accepted principle that the lineage of all thoroughbred racehorses could be traced to three foundation sires: the Godolphin Barb in 1729, the Darley Arabian in 1706, and the Byerley Turk, in 1686.”



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