The Big Three

The origins of the thoroughbred breed are steeped in mystery and folklore. King Charles II of England was a devoted supporter of horse racing during his reign and institued the first  “official” set of rules to govern the sport. There were plenty of stallions from an assortment of breeds used during the infancy of racing, as well as plenty of breeds used on the female side of horse breeding.

Imported Arabians, Turks and Barbs were favoured stallions, due to their high strung spirit and speed. Alcock’s Arabian, D’Arcy’s White Turk, Leedes Arabian, Curwen’s Bay Barb, The Oxford Dun Arabian and the Brownlow Turk are all substantial contributors. These stallions were crossed with native breeds to form the nucleus of the new thorougthbred. However as the breed evolved, three early stallion emerged as the tail male leaders to continue this new type. The Darley Arabian, The Byerley Turk and The Godolphin Arabian became forever known as the three founding sires of a popular and world reknon breed of horse. I refer to them as “The Big Three”.

Darley Arabian 1

The Darley Arabian

Perhaps the most influential of the three founding sires, The Darley Arabian is the direct male line ancestor of approximately ninety percent of all of today’s thoroughbreds. The Darley Arabian was a bay horse of almost 15 hands foaled in 1700. His original name was either Manak or Manica. Discovered in the Syrian Desert owned by Sheikh Mirza II of the Fedan Bedouins, Thomas Darley the British Consul in Syria, tried to purchase this fine young horse which he believed to be a pure Arabian.

As the legend is told, Darley and the Sheikh had agreed to a price of three hundred gold sovereigns. As Darley was awaiting his prized purchase, he was to discover that the Sheikh had changed his mind and was to renege on the deal. Darley was eager to bring this horse back to England so he devised a clandestine removal of the horse from the Sheikh’s possession through some sailors he was acquainted with. The colt was smuggled out, via Smyrna by the sailors. This cost Darley exactly one fine rifle in return for the sailor’s services.

Two of his sons, the full brothers Bartlet’s Childers and Flying Childers (out of the mare Betty Leeds), were his best. The latter was an exceptionally fast horse considered the greatest runner until Eclipse came along. Bartlet’s Childers however was the stallion who perpetuated the line at stud. Eclipse is his direct male line great grandson. The Darley Arabian’s great granddaughter Cypron produced Herod, another great sire to emerge in the early development of the thoroughbred.

Byerley Turk

The Byerley Turk

Bred in 1680, this founding sire is the oldest of the three. It was reported that he was quite enjoyable to handle and was exceptionally fast but was never raced in an official recorded race. It is believed that his importation to England was through the siege of Buda in 1686 and 1687, along with the Lister Turk, thus both horses became the spoils of war. The Duke of Berwick had joined with Charles of Lorraine’s forces to repel the raiders. Captain Byerley was also part of this campaign. The young Duke laid claim to the Lister Turk with Byerley to take his prize.

He became Robert Byerley’s personal charger when Byerley commanded the sixth Dragoon Guards before he was to become one of the thoroughbred breed’s founding sires. Byerley and his new charger were to serve in Ireland. Legend has it that the Byerley Turk was raced at Downpatrick on the way to the Battle of Boyne, 1690. If this were true then, this is where the horse’s speed would have been discovered.

Byerley, who was now a Lieutenant Colonel, retired from military duty and set up his breeding operation, first at Midrange Grange and then at Goldsborough Hall in North Yorkshire in 1697.

The Byerley Turk sired many winners in his day but his sire line has only survived through his great, great grandson Herod. The Byerley Turk’s influence through mares however is very important. His great granddaughter Partner Mare was the dam of the important early sire Matchem and in the direct female line of the important sire Whalebone.

Godolphin Arabian

The Godolphin Arabian

The Godolphin Arabian was the youngest of the three founding sires as he was bred in 1724. Of the three founding sires, his back story and acquisition seems to have more riddles than hard known truths. Believed to be foaled in either Morocco or Yemen, he was actually thought to be of Berber origin and is referred to by some as the Godolphin Barb. He lived a somewhat checkered life until it was discovered that as a stallion he could breed very fast and durable race horses.

He was given as a gift to King Louis XVI of France by the Bey of Tunis who, it is presumed, had acquired the horse through Syria, as one of several stallions within a lot of five. However the King had no interest in the horse. He was sold to an Englishman, Edward Coke of Derbyshire who, as the legend says, had noticed the horse pulling a water cart and liked what he saw. He was brought to England in 1731 and later bequeathed to a tavern owner named Mr. Williams, upon the death of Coke in 1733. Williams could not get the horse to train for racing, due to his somewhat difficult temper and thusly sold him to Lord Godolphin.

He was then used as a teaser on the Lord’s farm near Cambridge. While he was at Gogmagog Stud he was finally bred to an Arab mare called Roxana. The resulting foal was Lath, who became one of the fleetest horses at the races. The Godolphin Arabian, as he was now known, became a hot sought after stallion. He also got Regulus and Cade, the latter of which became the sire of Matchem.

The Big Three Needed Help

Broodmares were generally bred to stallions of Arabian origin. The English racing horse and Irish Hobby breed developed in or around the thirteenth century, has some influence in the distaff side of early thoroughbreds as does the Scottish Galloway, which is now extinct as a pure breed unfortunately.

It is estimated that fifty percent of the original mares were bred to stallions of Arabian descent, with the remainder divided by Turk and Barb origins. Approximately one hundred broodmares were entered in the original stud book in England. Later numbers depicting each one as a family surname linking direct female line descendants from these founding broodmares were developed by Bruce Lowe.

Other breeds of horses in racing formed beyond flat racing or hunt racing have these three sires in the back pages of their bloodlines. Standardbreds (trotters and pacers) all descend from Messenger, who has all of the three founding sires in his pedigree. Quarter horses were bred from thoroughbreds of the day along with other equine breeds (including Morgan and Palomino) to form their present breeds. Many of the top show jumpers come from thoroughbred bloodlines due to the thoroughbred’s obvious athleticism, so the big three will be in their lineage as well.

The big three founding sires were by no means the only sires at the beginning of the thoroughbred breed. There were many other stallions used in shaping the new breed but their male lines have not endured and for all intent are now extinct. The big three became dominant as far as direct male line descent is concerned. The Darley Arabian is the direct male line ancestor of approximately 90% of all thoroughbreds while the Byerley Turk and the Godolphin Arabian make up the remaining 10% between them. No other stallion at the dawn of the thoroughbred has a direct male line descendant currently racing.

Horses back then were also somewhat smaller than what we see in today’s thoroughbred, averaging just under 15.0 hands compared to now where the average is just above 16.0 hands. This is likely due to the fact that as shorter races became more popular through time, the need for pure speed and the selective breeding to obtain these traits in future generations, led to larger more muscular thoroughbreds.

Grey horses foaled throughout history have acquired their coat colour from the descendants of mares that have Alcock’s Arabian, the Brownlow Turk and D’Arcy’s White Turk in their lineage, as the three founding sires where not of this colour.

Racing has annointed The Darley Arabian, The Byerley Turk and The Godolphin Arabian as the three founding sires of the thoroughbred breed. By just following a tail male line, one can see why these three have been given the title as “Founders”. This can be somewhat of a misnomer for new people coming in the sport and learning about the breed. It would appear to the untrained eye that thoroughbreds were only initiated by the big three and no other.

However when we look back at the dawn of the breed we find there were hundreds of stallions used. Extended success came to the big three, leaving the rest as footnotes to a legend.


  • Wonderful article!! You have nail it because the founding sires of thoroughbred horses does go beyond what you call the big three. Yes they were important but so where the others. I hope you do a follow up about the other stallions when thoroughbreds began as a breed. That would be interesting to read.

  • Wonderful story!!!! I hope you do a follow up story about some of the other stallions back then and about some mares too. So so interesting

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