The Byerley Turk- The First Great Progenitor

Horseracing as an aristocratic sport became exceedingly popular during the 17th century reign of Charles II whose Royal stud was largely founded with mares imported from Tunisia as part of the queen consort’s dowry. Having witnesses the unparalleled stamina of these so-called “oriental” horses that outlasted any others in the grueling four to six miles races, the “gentlemen of the turf” set out in earnest to breed a better runner. This would be a horse with superlative courage, stamina, and speed, or in a single word easily understood and appreciated by the sporting men- a horse with true “bottom.”

The infusion of eastern blood had already begun somewhat haphazardly, but the 18th century saw a concerted effort to acquire exceptional stallions for the express purpose of breeding for the turf. Three of these Saracenic sires would prove exceptionally pre-potent (demonstrating the consistent ability to “stamp “their offspring with their own characteristics, almost entirely independent of the mares to whom they were bred.)

The Byerley Turk, described as a fiery stallion, a horse of elegance, courage, and speed, was the earliest of three stallions who would become the progenitors of every living thoroughbred. Named after Captain Robert Byerley, who is said to have taken the horse as one of three Turkish stallions at the siege of Vienna in 1683, the stallion is described by diarist John Evelyn:

“They trotted like does as if they did not feel the ground. Five hundred guineas were demanded for the first; three hundred for the second and two hundred for the third, which was browne. All of them were choicely shaped but the last two not altogether so perfect as the first. It was judged by the spectators among whom was the King, the Prince of Denmark, Duke of Yorke and several of the Court, noble persons skill’d in horses, especially M. Faubert and his sonn (provost master of the Academie and esteemed of the best in Europe) that there were never seene any horses in these parts to be compare’d with them”

The “browne” of whom Evelyn spoke, was to serve Captain Byerley with remarkable courage. The military records of the promoted Lieutenant Colonel Byerley show that he served with distinction in Ireland, and having taken with him the Turk who bears his name, rode him as a charger in Ireland during in King William’s wars. In 1690, public records show a race meeting held at Down Royal in Northern Ireland, in which Captain Byerley’s charger won the top prize, the Silver Bell. He is further reported to have raced this horse on his way to the Battle of the Boyne! At the same battle, he was so far ahead reconnoitering the enemy that he narrowly escaped capture, owing his safety to the superior speed of his horse.

Upon his retirement, Colonel Byerley put his stallion to the breeding shed.  At stud, the horse is remarkable for doing very well with his opportunities, given the dubious quality of the mares to which he was bred.

Basto, a dark bay, was his most important racing son, and also a very good stallion. Wootton’s portrait of Basto shows a nearly black horse with no white markings, similar in appearance to his own sire.

The most influential of the Byerley Turk’s sons was Jigg, described by the General Studbook as a “middling” horse who covered country mares in Lincolnshire until his son Partner  swept them all as a six-year-old. Partner, “a capital horse,” was a tremendous runner and extremely influential sire, although it’s his son Tartar who carried the sireline through Herod.

In addition to Basto and Jigg, the Byerley Turk produced a number of other good runners, the Duke of Rutland’s Archer, the Duke of Kingston’s Sprite, and Lord Godolphin’s Byerley Gelding, as well as a number of mares who were considered as priceless jewels in the early century.

In THE HIGHEST STAKES,  the blood of the Byerley Turk is well-represented at the Lichfield races with Hasting’s Hawke, a grandson of the Byerley Turk running against White Rose, a daughter of Whitefoot who is also of the Byerley Turk line. Although defeated, Hawke is saved from slaughter by Captain Philip Drake, to later become, like his grandsire, a faithful war charger.




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