Silvery Moon and the Byerley Turk: Keys to Strengthening the Thoroughbred?

Marion Altieri,New York writer

Marion Altieri,New York writer

So, what do an Overo Thoroughbred named Silvery Moon and the Byerley Turk have in common?
Both, extremely rare.  Both, underappreciated by most in American horse racing, both fans and pros, alike.
And both may be a key to strengthening the breed of Thoroughbreds in North America.  If we’ll give them a chance.

The topic of this article rose out of a couple of things that I’ve observed or in which I participated this week:  Gary Contessa’s video on his YouTube channel (and here on ToTT), in which he talks about how he thinks horses can be strengthened–and a conversation I had on Friday with a very knowledgeable friend, Katey Freeman Holmes.  Almost simultaneously, Katey and I punched the air and proclaimed that “they” breed for speed these days, and not for endurance.  (We lamented that so many horses in 2015 are direct descendants of Native Dancer, a horse very-well known for the osselets in the joints between his cannon bones and large pastern bones.)

And endurance is precisely what Gary Contessa was addressing in his video about horses of today vs. those of yesteryear.  He asked, have we created a breed of hothouse horses?

This speed v. endurance preference is not news.  If you’re reading this on, you know that this is a fact.  Most American breeders want those speed numbers.  Few, if any, pay much attention to one key attribute that the Thoroughbred’s Arabian ancestors contributed:  endurance.  In the late 1600s and 1700s, when the Thoroughbred was being hammered out, Mr.s Byerley, Godolphin and Darley chose to breed their native mares with Arabians (“Turks”).  The reasons for their choice of the Arabian was that the Arab horse brings profound intelligence –loyalty–and the ability to run all day through deep desert sands, for miles and miles.  Endurance.

The horse that the gentlemen sought to create in their proverbial laboratories would be a horse who got her/his large, musclar size from the native mares–and intelligence, loyalty and endurance from the three foundation Arabians.

TM FRED TEXAS 4Do you know that, to this day, break downs in Arabian horse racing are extremely rare, as opposed to the ongoing struggle in the Thoroughbred world?   This, of course, is because the Arabs are purebred Arabs, and their smaller-than-Thoroughbred size should not be mistaken for frailty:  those horses with the wispy tails are tougher than nails.  Their Arab genes go back thousands of years. Hearty stock, creating hearty stock, creating hearty stock.  I write this argument for respect for the Arabian horse from my position as a bit of an authority:   I’ve been a fan of Arabian racing for six years, and four years ago I edited a book about Arabian race horses.  (The Purebred Arabian Horses of Iraq  by Dr. Mohammad Bin ‘Abdul-‘Aziz Al-Nujaifi was written in Arabian–translated into English–and I edited the book.  I learned thousands of years of Arabian horse history and genetics during the five months of that wonderful gig.)

Do you know, also, that the Byerley line is almost extinct?  And that, In My Humble Opinion–is a pity.  The Byerley Turk was the personal charger of Captain Byerley in King William’s wars (1689).  Do you think that perhaps a horse who’s chosen as a charger for a military officer in battle might be fleet-of-foot, sturdy and strong?  War horses never have fought their battles on flat, smooth grass–of course not.  Hills, rocks, holes and dead bodies all challenge a horse whose rider is in battle–even moreso, when that rider is leading the charge.

It was all these strong, brave, physically superior traits that Captain Byerley wanted to breed to his mares.  You can understand that.

Do you know that, in 2008–the year when the late, brilliant Jess Jackson didn’t have a horse who’d win the Preakness–he spent Preakness weekend in South America, seeking out Byerley sires?

Why do you suppose such an intuitive, savvy horseman would do that?  Blow off the chance to be fawned over at Pimlico, and praised for his previous year’s victory with Curlin?  Because he was on a mission:  Mr. Jackson sincerely believed that, getting the Byerley Turk back into the gene pool would improve the Thoroughbred.  Would bring strength back to the breed–and give breeders a moment to stop and think before they triple-cross to a Native Dancer.  The Byerley Turk line needs to be revived in American Thoroughbred breeding, and no less than the great Jess Jackson, himself, was hoping to get the ball rolling.

As Mr. Jackson said, it would take a few generations for breeders to get it:  at first, their Byerley horses wouldn’t sell for much at auction–but as they saw the achievements of those horses, and the strength of their progeny–they’d get it, too.

So on the one hoof, we have the Byerley Turk, whose line has become all-but extinct in favor of speed-favored crosses.  And we see the need to revive the Byerley Turk’s profoundly sound legs and abilities, and inject them back into the breed of Thoroughbred.

SILVERY MOONOn the other hoof, we have the Overo Thoroughbred.  “What is overo?” you may ask.  Simply, overo refers to several genetically unrelated pinto coloration patterns of white-over-dark body markings in horses.  Pinto is not a breed of horse, pinto refers to patterns.  (There seems to be confusion about the word, “pinto,” just as there is with the word, “pony.”  A pony, as you know, is not a baby horse.)

And why is the concept of the Overo Thoroughbred in this article?  Precisely because–like the Byerley Turk–horses of a different color are underappreciated, even mocked. I’ve read questions about Overo Thoroughbred, like, “Is he a cow?”

Not funny, if you’re the horse or his owner.

If Thoroughbred racing has one fatal flaw–a hubris, if you will, that can become the root of the downfall of the sport–it’s that too many people in this sport are snobs.

Oh, I don’t mean that they’re rich people who sit in their boxes at the track and wear Chanel.  Not at all.  Some of my best friends fit into that category.

I mean that too many people in horse racing see an Overo Thoroughbred and feel compelled to make fun of it–instead of appreciating the beautiful creature for her/his uniqueness.  According to Keeneland, “…Nearly 90% of all Thoroughbreds registered with The Jockey Club are a variation of brown — either bay or dark bay or brown. The other official colors are chestnut, black, gray, roan and white.  Grey and roan are uncommon, while white is extremely rare.”

But mix up any of those colors, in a genetic free-for-all?  A Thoroughbred who’s white AND chestnut, or white AND black?  To some, that horse may look like a cow.  To others, she may resemble a Paint Horse.  But the fact is that, an Overo Thoroughbred is a beautiful animal, one who’s 100% Thoroughbred, and has the right to register with The Jockey Club and to race.

Too many people in horse racing in the U.S. make fun of things they don’t understand.  The Overo Thoroughbred really IS a Horse of a Different Color–so it’s a shock to the system of people who may be fans of 50 years.  But the fact that they’ve never seen one is not an indication that the horse isn’t a legitimate Thoroughbred.  It means only that the person who’s doing the viewing–needs to expand his worldview.

I did another completely unscientific study today–randomly, I researched the pedigrees of an Overo Thoroughbred named, Silvery Moon–a horse with some terrific successes in Europe–and those of Broad Brush, War Admiral, Gallorette, Rachel Alexandra and Curlin.

Silvery Moon still is making his mark.  The other horses all retired wealthy, and as heroes and heroines.

I chose those horses randomly, precisely because the retired/historic horses all had spectacular careers, beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt.

I followed their pedigrees all the way back to their foundation sires.

And…yes, you’ve guessed it…every single one of them has the Byerley Turk in their line.

Every one of those strong, powerful, sure-legged horses–War Admiral, Gallorette, Broad Brush, Rachel Alexandra, Curlin–and the still-racing Silvery Moon–have the sure-footed, strong-legged war horse, Byerley Turk strongly in their pedigrees.

This may be a cool coincidence.  This may mean something.  If it means nothing else, at the very least it indicates that, somewhere along the line, the Byerley Turk’s DNA passed on crazy-muscled legs, fully capable of carrying 20,000 pounds of pressure every time a hoof hit the gound at full-out racing speed.  And that at least these beautiful horses–every one of them beautiful in their own ways, patterned or  not–got that from at least him, if not from other ancestors.

Horse racing needs to change its mindset.  No more bigotry against horses of different colors–especially when those Thoroughbreds are purebreds, and can run just as fast as their competitors.  And the industry needs to start take the financial chance, of getting the Byerley line back strongly into the Thoroughbred.  Jess Jackson wasn’t an idiot with a pipe dream–he was a brilliant horseman, a thinker.  If  horse racing wants to run at the fastest-speed possible toward extinction, it should continue to breed for speed.  That breeding for speed will continue to contribute to break downs, and the public opinion that we, as a sport, are ruthless.  Now, we IN the industry know that that’s not true.

It’s just that breeding with only speed in mind is stupid.

Breeding with diversity and Byerley in mind may very well contribute mightily to the resurrection of our game as America’s Sport.  To ignore the need for new blood–whether that “new” blood is from a Turk in the 17th Century, or a horse of a different color–would be to proceed forward wearing blinkers–at best.  Potentially fatal to the future of the sport–at worst.