Thoroughbreds, a Breed for Speed

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

The Kentucky Derby, set to run this Saturday, as is the custom every first Saturday in May, is the oldest continuous sporting event in our country. Since the first settlers stepped onto the Bluegrass fields of Kentucky, horse racing…and horse breeding…have been the heart and soul of the region. If you have a chance to visit the bucolic rolling hills and majestic fenced horse farms that stretch for many miles toward every compass point from Lexington, you’ll quickly discover the central conversation, Derby time or otherwise, is bloodlines. More than the furlong track times, what’s crucial is which stallions are bred to which mares.

And as is true with all cases of genealogy, the Kentucky bloodlines can be traced back long before the American Thoroughbred. I find it fascinating that the horses that will run for the Roses on Saturday all trace back to around the turn of the 17th century. It was at that time that three particular stallions, The Darley Arabian named after Thomas Darley, the Godolphin Arabian named after Lord Godolphin, and the Byerly Turk named after Captain Robert Byerly…were transported from the Middle East to England to breed with the native mares. The first foals of that generation were genetically superior at sustaining speed with weight aboard for racing distances. And that generation was called the world’s first Thoroughbreds.

In America, there were horse races on Long Island very early, some dating as long ago as 1665. But history assigns the credit of introducing thoroughbred racing to North America to Maryland’s Governor Samuel Ogle who presented a race at Annapolis in 1745.

By 1791, the first Stud Book in America was published, charting the bloodlines of all the prominent race horses in the country. All the mares, every one of them, had direct lines to a horse named Eclipse, a direct descendent of the Darley Arabian.

The history of breeding the fastest stallions to the fastest mares produces a surprisingly short list of horses over the last 300 plus years.

And what I find equally interesting is that over these 300 some years, there has been negligible proof that male Thoroughbreds run any faster than females. The differential is very small, around 1%, compared to the difference in running speeds between human males and females, at over 10%. And yet when Devil May Care takes her place in the starting gates at Churchill Downs on Saturday, she represents only the fourth possible filly to win in the 136 runnings of The Kentucky Derby. Despite Rachel Alexandra standing as the reigning Horse of the Year and champion Zenyatta dominating all male comers in the most recent Breeders Cup, there continues a reluctance on the part of owners and trainers to race fillies against colts that defies logic. Given the evolution of the equine species as a flight prey animal, the survival of the species has depended on both males and females running fast, as opposed to humans where evidence suggests that gender-different tasks existed perhaps a million years ago, dictating the female running speed to be irrelevant to its species survival.

The race horse, both male and female, has been bred for speed for hundreds of years and yet a filly such as Devil May Care competing for the coveted Kentucky Derby is a rare and special phenomenon. It’s I suppose blatantly anthropomorphic to thrust these super fillies up onto feminist pedestals, as if they’re Billie Jean Kings smashing volleys against Bobby Riggs on behalf of all womankind. Yet there is a touch of sexism in Bluegrass country when it comes to fillies. Every bit as much as the colt, the filly was born to run like the wind.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that’s The Score.

Banner image: The field competes during the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby on May 2, 2009 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images



Diana Nyad