Standardbred horses today, whether trotters or pacers, are far more refined and elegant than the horses that launched trotting and pacing races some 200 years ago. Selective breeding has produced a horse that is closer to a purebred than a draft horse. Standardbreds however have sharper lines and sturdier builds. Although speed is obviously essential for Standardbreds, resilience, endurance and a fighting spirit are some of the other qualities sought in the conformation and anatomy of a racehorse. Harness horses average about 15 to 16 hands (a hand is 10 cm or 4 inches) in height, and weigh 400 to 500 kg or 900 to 1,100 pounds. The size of a horse however has no bearing on its success on the track. Just as horses are born big or small, they can be bay, brown, black, chestnut, grey or even roan in colour. Most lineages are bay, black or brown, but there is nothing more beautiful than seeing a flash of grey or chestnut in a field of horses sprinting to the finish line. Harness horses resemble humans in that some are mild mannered while others can be temperamental. Some live to compete and others are less driven.
The harness horse breed emerged from a desire for speed. It is the fastest trotting breed in the world. The origin of the breed dates back to Arabian horses whose fine qualities were admired by King Richard the Lionheart of England. During his reign, he imported stallions and crossed them with native mares. The English subsequently recognized how Arab blood could be used to enhance local breeds. Importing and crossing became commonplace but there was no method or plan to the practice. The history of the thoroughbred began under James 1 (King of England from 1603 to 1625) who regulated track racing. But it was Charles II (1660 to 1685) who provided real impetus to the ever popular sport of thoroughbred racing by sending horsemen to Arabia, Turkey and Morocco to select Arabian and Barb stallions and mares. Their English-born offspring are the true ancestors of English thoroughbreds.
In 1686, the Duke of Berwick imported the stallion Lister Turk. Subsequently, three Arabian stallions, Byerly Turk, Darley Arabian and Godolphin Arabian, the most well-known ancestors of the English thoroughbred breed, were imported into England between 1690 and 1730.
The Arabian-Barb Byerly Turk was captured from the Turks during the Battle of Buda by Captain Byerly. He was used as a war horse before being put to stud in 1690 once his military career was over. Byerly Turk would have gone unnoticed if it weren’t for the exceptional career of his great-great-grandson Herod, who won many races and most importantly sired winners of more than 1000 races.
Darley Arabian was brought to England in 1704 by Thomas Darley a merchant in Syria. Flying Childers, the first truly great racehorse, was one of the first colts from the union of Darley Arabian and Betty Leedes, the daughter of an Arabian stallion all descendents of grey thoroughbreds. Darley Arabian is the great-great-grandfather of the famous horse Eclipse. Six years after Herod, Eclipse was raised by the Duke of Cumberland and won 26 races in as many events. He sired more than 350 winners.
Finally, Godolphin Arabian was given to Louis XIV by the Sultan of Morocco, but was then abandoned because of his willful temperament. He was sold to a merchant who used him to pull carts in the streets of Paris, until Edward Coke noticed him one day and imported him to England in 1729. He was used as a “teaser” in Lord Godolphin’s stud farm but managed to cover a mare who had rejected her intended mate. The result was quite a success and Godolphin Arabian went on to become a prized racing stud, with the celebrated Matchem being one of his grandsons. The head of the Standardbred lineage we know today is Messenger, an English thoroughbred stallion born in 1780 and imported to the United States in 1788. Messenger is from the Darley Arabian lineage.
The Standardbred breed originated in the United States, specifically New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Major breeding centres were also founded in Kentucky and California from the breed’s early days. Directly or through descendents, Messenger left his mark on highly select breeds of trotter and pacer mares. With a dappled grey coat, Messenger was a descendent through his father of the Sampson line which played a major role in the development of trotter breeds, transmitting this natural look to his descendents. Bellfounder, a Norfolk stallion born in 1817 and imported to the United States in 1822 to avoid inbreeding, also contributed to the Standarbred line. A descendent of the Godolphin Arabian line, Bellfounder ranked second among the founders of the breed. He was one of the fastest trotters of his time in addition to being the most outstanding. Diomede is another English thoroughbred horse that helped increase the speed of Standarbreds. He is a descendent of Darley Arabian through his mother and Godolphin Arabian through his father. He was imported to Virginia in 1799. The Canadian horse also made a significant contribution to the development of the trotter breed in the United States. In its bloodline, the Pilote lineage had a Canadian pacer and trotter stallion that was foaled in the province of Quebec in 1828 and exported at 18 months to the United States where it produced a line of horses known for their speed. Green Mountain Maid, Pilote’s granddaughter, was the top foundation mare for this breed. The Hall family is also Canadian. Its foundation sire, the stallion Tom Hall, produced a large number of pacers with significant speed records.
Three other dynasties contributed to the selection of racehorses: the Mambrino from the Messenger line, and the Morgan line who were descendents of Justin Morgan (1789), a very small horse, and the Clay line that showed no special capacity for trotting. This family was founded by the Bashaw stallion imported from Tripoli in 1820 and a Canadian mare Lady Surry, the most outstanding of all those exported to the United States.
The amblers and trotters on our racetracks today are direct descendents of four sons of a grandson of Messenger, Hambletonian. Hambletonian’s influence on breed selection shows the extent to which Messenger’s bloodline contributed mightily to the Standardbred racehorse. Although Messenger himself was never an outstanding racehorse, he proved to be a good breeder and acquired a great reputation through his descendents. Hambletonian was born in Orange County, New York. Among his many sons the ones who contributed the most to the breed were George Wilkes in 1856, Dictator and Happy Medium in 1863, and Electioneer in 1868. In 1879, the national Association of Trotting Horse Breeders established a speed standard of a mile in two and a half minutes, hence the name Standardbred for those that managed to meet the standard.
To conclude, the Standardbred horse is a descendent of many different breeds the most well-known being Arabian, Barb and thoroughbred horses, not to mention the considerable contribution of the Canadian horse.