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An Introduction to the Thoroughbred, by Peter Willett

March 28, 2012

After a bit of a hiatus from writing about books on horse racing (family member has been sick), I’m back with another worthwhile book, An Introduction to the Thoroughbred, by Peter Willett. Although I wrote a little about this book in the post A List of the Best Books on Horse Racing, because it is considered such a masterpiece, I wanted to add a little more information about this well-regarded book. As discussed in that post, Racing Post writer John Randall considered it #10 of the top 10 masterpieces representing the pinnacle of turf literature, for its coverage of breeding, one that everyone interested in the subject should read before any others.

First published in 1966, Willett’s book is about the evolution of the British Thoroughbred, which is described as “one of the most remarkable products of English genius.” My copy of the book is the revised 1975 edition, and in it, Willet included more of the latest research and trends in breeding at that time, modifying earlier judgments if necessary, and added a new chapter exploring the international factors, French and American, which were also affecting the evolution of the thoroughbred. The aim of the book, as Willet writes in the introduction, “is to provide a consecutive account of the development of the British Thoroughbred and of the principles involved, from his known origins down to the present day.” (p. 11)

Flying Childers, foaled in 1715, was the first great racehorse. Dimple, foaled about 1708, was closely related to the dam of Flying Childers and sired a number of winners

He begins as far back as 1660, looking at the Stuart Restoration and King Charles II. Willet writes that “Charles was the first royal racing regular, and was a competent race-rider himself. His unwavering enthusiasm and constant patronage of Newmarket helped to make racing a national sport.” (p. 15) From there he discusses the first great racehorse, Flying Childers, and then writes about breeding topics, including heredity and environment, breeding theories, inbreeding, blood-lines and families, and The General Stud Book. Throughout the book are nice black and white illustrations and photographs of various notable horses, including Eclipse (“the second great racehorse and one of the most influential sires in thoroughbred history”), Hyperion (“The winner of the Derby and St. Leger in 1933, Hyperion became one of the foremost Classic sires int he mid-twentieth century”), and Ribot (“The unbeaten winner of sixteen races, Ribot, bred in Italy in 1952, was one of the great racehorses and sires of the twentieth century”).

Ribot was one of the great racehorses and sires of the 20th century

The last chapter of the book is about international competition in the second half of the 20th century. By the mid-19th century, the English breed of horses had been exported to Russia, France, Germany, the United States, Baden, Mecklenburg, Holstein, Prussia, India, Sardinia, Tasmania, Jamaica, Sweden, and New South Wales. Willet writes that eventually some of the foreign countries would be capable of producing horses superior to the British. This chapter describes races where foreign-bred horses challenged the British.

The book concludes with a nice Glossery defining terms used in a factual and conversational way, followed by a number of pedigrees. I learned a lot from this book and can understand why it is so well-respected.

If you have any comments or questions about this book, please post them below.

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