This weekend and over the coming month in racing, a consistent theme will be the variety and volume of international competition. Among countries sending horses to race in France for the Arc de Triomphe and other premier races, the Arc festival is one of the highlights of international racing, and next month, the United States will host the Breeders’ Cup, which will feature two days of premium racing much along the lines of what we saw at Chantilly.
The understanding of the international character of the Thoroughbred and of its appeal to racing folk around the world are a key tenet of the sport today. But a century ago, changes in buying and selling horses had breeders up in arms, and they weren’t too sure that international competition and involvement were a good thing.
In 1913, the English Jockey Club approved the Jersey Act, which required horses applying for registration to the General Stud Book (GSB) to trace back to other horses found in the GSB in all lines. This was a change from the slightly more open guidelines that had been in effect. Previously, rules had allowed horses to be registered if they traced back to horses found in the GSB in seven or eight lines. The language of that rule was even open to interpretation by the registrar and Jockey Club.
Just a few years earlier, however, the governor of New York and the state legislature had promoted and passed anti-gambling laws as part of a national fetish for cleaning up the country. Numerous other states followed suit, bookmakers were jailed for trying to do business, and patrons at racetracks were hauled off to jail if they tried to bet on races.
This quickly choked the life out of racing, and even though Kentucky held to its traditions of sport and personal responsibility, the blackout on racing in state after state hurt the Bluegrass more than most.
Breeders had 2-year-olds, yearlings, mares in foal, and mares standing in paddocks. Although mares could be stored for a bit, young horses are like fruit. They are good while they’re good; without racing, what were breeders and stable owners to do with them?
Quite a few of the larger breeders began selling horses abroad. Shiploads of horses went to Argentina, Germany, Hungary, Russia, and other countries. Some went to England, including some of the very best like the unbeaten racer Colin, and the British looked at the incoming horde with alarm.
Thus, the Jersey Act was born.
Before a greater tide of Thoroughbred flotsam could wash up on distant shores, the new ruling had “un-Thoroughbred-ed” them.
The gentle reader need not fear that this sort of thing was met with good humor by breeders in the States. But what could they do?
So, the interesting and even surprising thing is that a group of enterprising breeders and owners began buying groups of horses, especially yearlings, from England and importing to race in the States. I expect they reasoned it was their only positive way of going forward; even though American-breds were fully accredited stateside, they would not gain recognition from the GSB until 1949.
So breeders and racing men hitched up their waders and bought some English racing prospects. The First World War, which began in 1914, made this even easier to accomplish because racing was restricted in England and France due to the ongoing conflict, and that made prices for expensive stock more attractive to American buyers.
The effort to “buy British” worked so well that, by 1917, there was a public outcry against the large-scale shipment of young horses to America. Despite the “scare,” there were only a few hundred Thoroughbreds exported annually from Britain to the States, but during the war years, that number was about one-third of England’s total export of Thoroughbreds.
The Bloodstock Breeders’ Review of 1917 noted that, rather than lament the sale of these horses, “it has been the salvation of the Thoroughbred industry in this country.”
Importation of more good stock was beneficial for breeding in the U.S. also. In 1916, the leading 2-year-old Campfire was by an imported sire out of an imported mare, and second-ranked Hourless was foaled in England in 1914, sent as foal to be reared in France, then exported to race in the U.S., where he won the 1917 Belmont Stakes. Also in 1916, Kentucky Derby winner George Smith was by an imported sire out of an imported mare, and Belmont Stakes winner Friar Rock was likewise.
Numerous other good horses were bred on similar lines, and in 1917, the Kentucky Derby was won by Omar Khayyam, a colt bred in England and purchased as one of 11 yearlings from trainer C.T. Patterson at Newmarket in the autumn of 1915.
Omar Khayyam was one of the least expensive at 300 guineas, roughly $1,500, and not dirt cheap for the times. He trained into a competitive staying juvenile the following year, and about 18 months after purchase, Omar Khayyam became the first Kentucky Derby winner bred overseas.
In the words of the great English singer Mick Jagger, “You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes, you get what you need.”