The great proliferation of gray coloring in the Thoroughbred came through The Tetrarch, bred in Ireland by Edward Kennedy, who reportedly purchased Roi Herode because of a fascination with the Byerley Turk line through Herod.
Although that color line has remained in racing and breeding at the highest level, the Herod male line is now effectively lost. Yet in the 19th century, Herod was a major force in pedigrees in Europe, and in North America, the line was much more than that. The Herod line ruled in America through the first three-quarters of the 19th century and did so because of a single horse.
The first winner of the Derby Stakes at Epsom, Diomed.
The chestnut son of Florizel (by Herod 1758) won 11 of his 20 starts and was unbeaten as a 3-year-old; so one of the peculiarities is why Diomed was so little esteemed as a sire in his homeland. Essentially, it was fashion. The horse trained off near the end of his 4-year-old season, did not start at five, and won only a single race at four-mile heats as a 6-year-old. With his great victories years before, Diomed did not prove popular among breeders in England, and in 1798, Sir Charles Bunbury, who had raced the horse, sold Diomed for 50 guineas to a pair of horse traders.
Those sharp lads then resold the old boy, at age 21, to the Virginians Col. John Hoomes and John Tayloe for about 20 times what the savvy buyers had paid and exported him to Virginia. This would be the end of the line for an older stallion, right?
Not for Diomed.
He remade the Herod line in America with one successful racehorse and sire after another, and Diomed was the most celebrated horse in the former colonies when he died 10 years later in 1808 at age 31.
Diomed’s most famous racers included Ball’s Florizel, Stump-the-Dealer, Duroc, Haynie’s Maria, and Sir Archy. The latter, a foal of 1805, was beginning his racing career when his famous sire died, and the bay son became the greatest four-mile heat racer of his day. This latter point may be an indication of why Diomed fared better in America than in England.
The old country had switched its racing program very substantially to “dash” racing, a single run down the course rather than the old-style heats, with the winner being determined by the best two out of three heats on the same afternoon. This was not a game for infants, and heat racers were frequently six, eight, or 10. They had to be hardy and game. And mature.
Here in the States, the fashion for dashes was still decades in the future. The great plantation owners and breeders of racehorses were willing to sift through dozens of colts to come up with the one or two who could stand the training and racing required to stand up to this old-fashioned manner of sport.
Waiting for a colt to grow up and harden off to stand the rigors of this racing was much more acceptable to the riotously wealthy planters of cotton and tobacco than to businessmen thinking of investments and potential return. And it would appear that the Diomed stock suited this program to a startling degree; Diomed himself had scored his final victory at four-mile heats. Despite possessing speed and fairly early maturity, he got stock that matured and improved well. Sir Archy, for instance, did not come to his best form until he was four and racing the long heats.
Then, what a surprise that Sir Archy’s stock could run to form in heats or dashes.
Still, most of the racing remained focused on heats, especially at three and four miles, and one of Sir Archy’s best sons, Timoleon, sired the greatest American heat racer, a bright chestnut horse named Boston.
Inbred to Diomed 3×3 through Sir Archy and broodmare sire Ball’s Florizel, Boston was named for a card game, not the city in Massachusetts, and maybe that was a good thing because Boston was a very bad boy. He was so hard to handle and train early on that one famous recommendation that has been handed down was that Boston should “be either castrated or shot, preferably the latter.”
Had either unfortunate suggestion been followed, it would have changed the course of American racing and breeding for the worse.
Cooler heads and quieter hands prevailed, Boston yielded sufficiently to careful handling, and the red colt became a racer. He lost his debut at three due to greenness, but continued unbeaten thereafter until he was six. Typically, Boston raced up and down the East Coast at courses in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia, rarely racing at the same course twice in succession.
At age eight in 1841 and again at nine, Boston began covering mares in the late spring and summer months, while racing in the early spring and fall. Returned to racing at 10 in 1843, Boston won his final start and retired with a record of 40 victories (not heats) from 45 races.
If a tougher racehorse ever lived, I wouldn’t want to eat him.
Boston sired high-class racers from the start, although we don’t see any of his sons and daughters on the lists as winners of America’s classics. None of those races existed yet.
By the late 1840s, Boston had gone blind and had declined significantly in health, quite possibly as a result of his blindness. On Jan. 31, 1850, Boston was found dead in his stall, age 17.
The old champion became the leading sire in America in 1851-53, and in his last crop, foals of 1850, were two sons of the highest merit, Lecompte and Lexington. Boston was elected to the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame at its inception in 1955.
Through the accomplishments of Diomed, his immediate successors, and especially his great-grandson Lexington, the Herod line was the dominant force in American breeding for much of the 19th century.