Will this fast-paced history of horse racing's greatest bloodline turn out to be the 'bookie prize' favourite?


On the Shortlist

Mr Darley's Arabian: High Life, Low Life, Sporting Life: A History of Racing in 25 Horses.

By Christopher McGrath (John Murray) £25.00

Review by Jon Culley

Chris McGrath's book covers 300 years of racing history
Chris McGrath's book covers
300 years of racing history
In the early part of the 18th century, when the landscape and politics of the Middle East was rather different from today, a gentleman merchant by the name of Thomas Darley, working for the Levant Company in Aleppo, acquired a horse.

It was a bay colt, taller than the average Arabian horse.  In a letter to his brother in 1703, Darley noted that it was strikingly handsome and "with an exceedingly elegant carriage". He bought it for his father, Richard, with plans to take it back to the family's country seat, Aldby Park, not far from the village of Stamford Bridge in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

In some accounts, it has been suggested that Darley came across the animal after reviving his interest in hunting and thereby coming into contact with Bedouin tribesmen but little is known about the precise circumstances in which he acquired it.  Hailed for its speed across the ground, it had been given the Arabic name "Ras el Fedowi" - "The Headstrong One".

What is known is that the deal would become arguably the most significant piece of horse trading that ever took place.

Powerful bloodline

Aldby Park in Yorkshire, the country estate that became home to Mr Darley's Arabian
Aldby Park in Yorkshire, the country estate that became
home to Mr Darley's Arabian
The colt was duly shipped to Yorkshire, spending the larger part of an arduous journey suspended in a kind of hammock in the hold of a merchant ship.  It was never raced but spent 14 years covering mares at Aldby Park, its genes introducing speed to the traditional strength of the English breeds, and in doing so created the most powerful bloodline in the history of thoroughbred horse racing.

All thoroughbreds, in fact, are descended from just three stallions, all imported to England at around the same time. Ras el Fedowi, who became known as the Darley Arabian, was one.  The others were the Godolphin Arabian and the Byerley Turk but the Darley line was so powerful that over time the influence of the other two has dwindled.

Today, according to author Chris McGrath, the lineage of an incredible 95 per cent of the participants in any thoroughbred race, anywhere in the world, "from Royal Ascot to the Melbourne Cup to the Kentucky Derby" will be descended from Mr Darley's Arabian.

It was from this starting point that McGrath, a fine writer who was for a number of years the horse racing correspondent of the Independent newspaper, decided to write a history of the sport with the lineage of the Darley Arabian as its central thread.

Frenetic pace

A simple idea, it is one that works admirably.  Beginning with Thomas Darley and Ras el Fedowi and ending with the brilliant Henry Cecil-trained Frankel, winner of the 2011 Two Thousand Guineas and a record nine consecutive Group 1 races, it tracks more than 300 years of horse racing, essentially through the careers of 25 horses but touching upon pretty much every champion in that time.

There is an enormous cast of human characters, too, from rogues to Royals (which some falling into both categories), from which McGrath draws some wonderfully engaging tales, all told at a frenetic pace that compels the reader to turn page after page with scarcely time to draw breath.

The champion racehorse Frankel in action at Doncaster
The champion racehorse Frankel in action at Doncaster
Thoroughly researched and clearly an enormous project, Mr Darley's Arabian perhaps suffers a little for containing perhaps such an enormity of detail and so many stories, taxing the brain's ability to take it all in, although far better to provide too much information than too little.

In any case, there is no law against reading a book twice, or many more times.  And one of the joys of a book with such a broad scope is that a second exploration of its pages often finds previously overlooked gems nuggets that make it an even more fulfilling experience.

Mr Darley's Arabian: High Life, Low Life, Sporting Life: A History of Racing in 25 Horses, by Christopher McGrath (John Murray) £25.00

Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WH Smith

The winner of the 2016 William Hill Sports Book of the Year award, worth £28,000 to the successful author, will be revealed at an afternoon reception at BAFTA, in central London, on Thursday.  There will a poignancy about this year's award ceremony in that it will be the first since John Gaustad, the award's co-founder and proprietor of the much-missed Sportspages book shop in central London, passed away earlier this year.

Also shortlisted: Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zátopek, by Rick Broadbent (Wisden Sports Writing)

Also shortlisted: Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan (Corsair)

Also shortlisted: Chasing Shadows: The Life and Death of Peter Roebuck, by Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge (Hardie Grant)

Also shortlisted: Oliver Kay's Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty - lost genius of Manchester United's golden generation (Quercus)

And then there were seven - the full shortlist for the 2016 William Hill Sports Book of the Year

William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2016: the longlist in full

(Picture credits: Aldby Park by Gordon Hatton; Frankel by RacingKel. Via Wikimedia Commons)



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