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Mr Darley's Arabian:

High Life, Low Life, Sporting Life

by Christopher McGrath

Describing the fabulous desert horses that were the foundation - "the men had no religion, the women no drawers and the horses no bridles".

Queen Anne grew so obese that she was buried in an almost square coffin.

Duel between an English lord and a man who had been a surgeon in India who had noticed that gunshot wounds more dangerous when tangled with clothing. Accordingly he stripped naked for the duel. Both shooters missed and the quarrel was patched up.

Lord Glasgow was an impulsive man. He was prone to ordering the summary execution of disappointing horses - half a dozen might be shot after a trial on the heath - and he once set fire to the bed of a servant who had gone to bed instead of waiting up for him.

Barnato brothers (Jews who had made a fortune in Kimberley diamond mines) came back to England and put some of their money into racing stables and mansions. "He filled its paddocks with mares and its marble swimming pools with chorus girls." (And if they came without swim costumes, their host kindly lent them ones - which dissolved in water ...)

(London Times)

There has always been a contradiction at the heart of horse racing. We call it the sport of kings (and it is certainly a passion for the reigning Queen), but the appeal transcends class divisions and racing's workforce mostly comes from those who are unqualified for anything else.

Take a tour through Newmarket in Suffolk, the English town that most dances to the beat of the thoroughbred, and you get the picture. On the outskirts, the manicured hedges and pristine fences of the stud farms; on the high street the proliferation of bookies' shops that hoover up the wages earned by those who care for the horses.

The irony, of course, is that not all the rogues are to be found among the less well-heeled. Perhaps not even the worst of them. It is a point eloquently made by Christopher McGrath in this excellent history of thoroughbred racing. McGrath is a sports writer, one of the finest and certainly one of the most under-appreciated of this generation. He tells stories with gentle understatement and has a fine understanding of racing and its diverse community. His history is told through the lives of 25 horses, beginning with the birth of the Darley Arabian in 1700, and going right up to the great Frankel in 2008. There is a biological logic to all this for, beginning with the Darley Arabian, each champion that McGrath discusses is a descendant of the one that went before.

The story begins with Thomas Darley, a failed businessman who had spent 18 years in Aleppo working for the Levant Company, before deciding in 1704 that it was time to go back to his native Yorkshire. To smooth his return and improve the chances of his father welcoming him home, he bought an Arab stallion and arranged for it to be transported to England.

Poor Darley was fated not to know about the stallion's extraordinary impact. Not long before his departure, he fell from another horse and incurred the chest injuries that would lead to his death. His horse, though, flourished as the sire of countless winners.

Whistlejacket was the first foal sired by the Darley Arabian to be a winner. His victory impressed a man called Leonard Childers, who sent one of his mares to the Darley Arabian. Flying Childers was the result of that mating and, according to Childers, he was 'the fleetest horse that ever ran at Newmarket or, as generally believed, was ever bred in the world'. Exaggeration or not, the Darley Arabian, in McGrath's words, was 'on the road to immortality'.

McGrath reminds us that the people with the best horses aren't always the best people. He tells us about Dennis O'Kelly, who came to London from Ireland in the 1740s, four decades after the Darley Arabian found a new home in Yorkshire. O'Kelly was a wrong 'un who had spent five years in Fleet prison for financial misdemeanours. He was also a charmer. Released from jail, he hitched up with Charlotte Hayes, London's most celebrated madam, who entrapped young middle-class girls into prostitution. O'Kelly, meanwhile, bought racehorses, among them Eclipse, a descendant of the Darley Arabian, and the most celebrated racehorse of his generation.

O'Kelly and Hayes's businesses flourished. Eclipse enjoyed a spectacular career and then retired to stud, covering 60 mares each season at 30 guineas a pop. Hayes, meanwhile, had a lucrative business supplying her husband's clients. As McGrath puts it: 'While Eclipse mounted their mares, [O'Kelly's] guests could take their pick from the delectable girls shuttled out from London by Charlotte Hayes.'

O'Kelly wasn't alone in disrepute; McGrath's book is packed with similarly shady characters. But it is the horses who are the heroes here. The finest were the ones who produced brilliance on the track. The ones who created the fortunes, however, were those who passed on their genes to the next generation.

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