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The Godolphin Arabian

One of the three legendary founding stallions of the modern thoroughbred
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The Godolphin Arabian

The Godolphin Arabian
The Godolphin Arabian with Grimalkin the stable cat (pictured by the door)
© British Horseracing Museum

The Godolphin Arabian (also known as the Godolphin Barb), was foaled in Yemen in 1724 (from Jilfan blood). A brown colt, with a little white on his off-hind heel, he stood 14.3 hands high.

He was exported, via Syria to Tunis, as one of four horses to be presented by the Bey of Tunis to the King of France. Three of these were taken to the Brittany forests and 'turned out' to improve the local stock. The fourth horse, the Godolphin Arabian, is popularly believed to have drawn a cart through the streets of Paris, where Englishman Edward Coke is said to have bought him as a six-year-old for £3. However, another source relates that Coke acquired the horse via the French Court through the Duke of Lorraine. Whichever version is true, Coke sent his purchase to his estate at Longford Hall in Derbyshire.

When Coke died in August 1733, aged only 32, he bequeathed his bloodstock to Roger Williams, proprietor of the St James's Coffee House in London, who also acted as a bloodstock agent. Williams then sold the Arabian, believed at the time to be named Shami, to Francis, 2nd Earl of Godolphin; the horse was known thereafter as the Godolphin Arabian. Of the eye-witness accounts that survive, Vicomte de Manty, having seen the Arabian in France, described him as having 'beautiful conformation, exquisitely proportioned with large hocks, well let down, with legs of iron…whose only flaw was being headstrong…his quarters broad in spite of being half starved, tail carried in true Arabian style'. His poor condition when seen at that time might have been due to his voyage from Tunis.

Later in England, the well-regarded author and veterinary surgeon William Osmer wrote: 'There never was a horse…so well entitled to get racers as the Godolphin Arabian…his shoulders were deeper, and lay farther into his back, than those of any horse yet seen. Behind the shoulders, there was but a very small space where the muscles of his loins rose exceedingly high, broad, and expanded, which were inserted into his quarters with greater strength and power than in any horse . . . yet seen'. There is no record of the Godolphin Arabian having ever raced, and there are no details of his pedigree. Despite this, he was an outstanding success at stud, and despite siring only about 80 foals in a career lasting 22 years he was leading sire three times, in 1738, 1745 and 1747.

The well-bred Roxana (born 1718), who was by the leading sire Bald Galloway out of a sister to Chanter, was mated with the Godolphin Arabian. She produced just three foals, two of them to the Godolphin Arabian: Lath (bay colt 1732), who was unbeaten, and thought to be the best horse seen at Newmarket since Flying Childers (1715); and Cade (bay colt 1734), winner of a King's Plate at Newmarket. Sadly, Roxana died two weeks after foaling Cade, who had to be reared with cow's milk.

Later, three of the Godolphin Arabian's sons dominated the sires' list for almost 20 years. Cade was leading sire five times, Regulus (bay colt 1739) eight times, and Blank (bay colt 1740) three times. However, it was Cade's son Matchem (bay colt 1748), winner of eight races and leading sire for three consecutive years from 1772, who perpetuated the sire-line.

The Godolphin Arabian died at Gog Magog, near Cambridge, in December 1753, aged 29 years. He was given a wake with cakes and ale and solemnly buried under a gateway at the stable. A stone slab marked his gravesite, which still exists today within the Wandlebury Ring. The stable cat, Grimalkin, who often featured in the horse's portraits and with whom he shared a long friendship, reportedly died of grief soon after.

The lasting influence of the Godolphin Arabian in the pedigrees of succeeding generations can be gauged from the fact that 50 years after his death, all the first 76 British Classic winners had at least one strain of him in their pedigree. In addition, all but three of the 115 mares born in or before 1803 to become dams of Classic winners had also inherited the Godolphin Arabian genes.

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