Hot-Blooded Horse Conquers a Cold Climate – The Godolphin Barb’s English Home
by Laura Harrison McBride (December 2008)
One has to take the good with the bad, as every rider knows. It was just so with one of the three Thoroughbred foundation stallions, the Godolphin Barb (or Arabian). Legend has it that the stallion once pulled a water cart through the streets of Paris before being shipped to England where, eventually, he hit his stride as a sire of champions in the middle of the eighteenth century.
In fact, the horse probably never pulled a water cart, having been given to the King of France by the Bey of Tunis. The horse was known, then, as the Belgrade Turk, possibly indicating the route by which he was shipped from the Asia Minor to Europe.
According to economicexpert.com, the Godolphin Barb was foaled in what is today called Yemen, so he would have acquired the Belgrade moniker on his way through Asia Minor and into eastern Europe before moving on to western Europe, France and finally across the channel to England. That the horse is also called an Arabian, rather than a Barb, is also somewhat confusing. But then, the terminology of that part of the world is confusing.
The Wind of Heaven…
Yemen, by the sixteenth century, had become part of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire included, then, what is known was the Barbary Coast, a vast region ringing the eastern Mediterranean and spreading inland to the mountains beyond. From this vast region, Barbary Pirates ranged into the oceans of the world. An important sultan in the region, the Bey of Tunis, could easily have obtained a horse foaled in the Yemeni mountains, as both Yemen and Tunisia were part of the Barbary Coast. Because of the extent of the Barbary Coast, no matter where in the eastern reaches of the Mediterranean or lower slopes of interior Arabia he was sired, the Godolphin horse is probably more properly called a Barb than an Arabian. Either way, his progeny have proven the Middle Eastern proverb, “The wind of heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears.”
By whatever route the hot-blooded horse known today as the Godolphin Barb arrived in the cooler climes of Europe, the trip probably didn’t do him any good. He changed hands in Paris at least once, and then in England, in the northern county of Derbyshire, at least twice. Indeed, by the time he got to the Godolphin barns, he had been described as “half starved.” Despite being beautifully made, according to the Frenchman, Vicomte de Manty—who had also noted that the horse’s name was Shami (or El Sham, depending on the source)—his temperament was rank, ensuring that he would be no favorite among barn staff in France or England. De Manty was impressed, however, by the horse’s “legs of iron” and “unequalled lightness of forehand,” according to the tbheritage.com website.
A Fractious Stallion Finds a Home
One has to wonder if the 550-acre estate of Sir Francis Godolphin did the Barb any good. In fact, although the Godolphin money secured the horse for its owners—and, as it turns out, for posterity—one also has to wonder if the Barb spent any time in the salubrious climate of Godolphin, the Cornish estate of the Godolphin family. With ample income from the tin mines on the estate, the Godolphins could well afford upscale digs for their horses in Newmarket, the race-training capital of England, as well as comfy stables in the Cornwall countryside. Indeed, it was in Newmarket that the Barb finally died on Christmas Day, 1753, and where he is buried, rather than on the Godolphin estate itself. In fact, the Godolphins didn’t care much for Cornwall and visited only rarely after about 1710. As long as the mines hadn’t played out, they had plenty of “brass” to use in buying, breeding and racing horses anywhere they liked.
By all accounts, Shami—called “ye Arabian” (thus continuing the confusion) in the studbook of his first British owner, Edward Coke—lived a pretty good life after he got to England. Coke was no pauper, and it was his family connections with the French Duke of Lorraine that had enabled him to buy a horse originally meant as a gift for the French court. All the same, Coke’s wealth was not as great as the Godolphin wealth, so it is probably fortunate for the breed that Shami ended up in Godolphin barns, rather than Edward Coke’s barns, or those of Coke’s friend, Roger Williams, a bloodstock agent. When Coke died in 1733, at age 32, he left Shami and a rival stallion, Hobgoblin, to Williams. Francis, Second Earl of Godolphin, bought Shami from Williams.
At Stud…Sort Of
When Shami arrived at the Godolphin Newmarket stable in 1733, he succeeded in breeding with Lady Roxana, a “fickle” mare that had also belonged to Edward Coke. According to some accounts at the time, Lady Roxana had rejected the other great Coke stallion, Hobgoblin. Some say Godolphin approved Roxana’s cover by Shami; others contend that Shami simply took advantage of the situation on his own, infuriating Godolphin, whose rage calmed only after the resulting skinny colt, Lath, began to win at the track. Even then, there is some disagreement in contemporary accounts; was Lath a “very elegant and beautiful horse” as some contend, or a puny, bony, ugly one that could run? Still, with the foaling of Lath and that horse’s subsequent racing success, the fractious Shami’s fame as a stud began to take shape in England…and then an enterprising Marylander continued the line in the American colonies.
The Start of a Two-century Rivalry
Some time between 1750 and 1752, Marylander Benjamin Tasker, Jr., brought Selima (by Shami out of Shireborn) to the colonies, beginning an enduring link for the region with the great Godolphin Barb. In 1752, Selima won the biggest purse of the era in a race at Gloucester, Virginia, starting the traditional rivalry between the colonies of Maryland and Virginia over which of the two colonies/states produces the better horses. Selima was later retired from racing to become a popular broodmare at Belair Stud in Collington, Maryland. Belair Stud remained a source of excellent racing horses for 200 years, producing a number of Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont winners. Selima also gave her name to a stakes race at Laurel Park, the Selima Stakes for two-year-olds. Normally run in late November, in 2008 it was put on hiatus because of Laurel taking up the slack from the temporary closure of Pimlico Race Track.
No doubt Maryland is still home to dozens of “Godolphin Barb” horses, though his progeny are considered relatively rare compared to the progeny of the Darley Arabian. Nonetheless, Shami’s line resulted, in the United States, in Seabiscuit (also renowned for a bad temper in his youth), Man o’ War, and War Admiral. And, while Funny Cide’s sire line is from the Darley Arabian, he has the Godolphin Barb elsewhere in his pedigree, as do many American racing Thoroughbreds. Funny Cide, bred in New York, is that state’s highest winning racehorse of all time. (Note: Funny Cide, too, could be fractious. Despite being gelded because of his foul temperament, there were few who could handle him on the ground. Funny Cide ended up with his own, exclusive hot-walker as a result.)
Shami (or El Sham, or ye Arabian, or the Godolphin Barb…suit yourself) also contributed to the bloodlines of the American Quarter Horse. In the mid-eighteenth century, another of Shami’s offspring, Janus, was imported to the colonies. A “powerful, strong, compact horse of small stature (14 hands), Janus galvanized the Quarter Horse breed into a distinct form,” according to the University of California (Davis) Book of Horses.
Conformation of a foundation stallion
As painted by George Stubbs and as described in contemporary accounts, Shami had a small build with a high crest, a trait that was seen in his progeny. His color was gold-touched bay, seemingly like the coloring of modern Akhal-Teke horses, a trait he also transmitted to his progeny.
All of Shami’s immediate offspring were described as exceptionally fast on the track and extremely prepotent, in turn siring many winners who had the same conformation and speed. Contemporary veterinary surgeon William Osmer wrote of Shami that “his shoulders were deeper and lay farther into his back than any horse yet seen; behind his shoulders there was but a small space; before the muscles of his loin rose excessively high, broad, and expanded, which were inserted into his quarters with greater strength and power than any horse ever yet seen of his dimensions. It is not to be wondered at that the excellence of this horse’s shape was not in early times manifest to some men, considering the plainness of his head and ears, the position of his fore-legs, and his stunted growth, occasioned by want of food in the country where he was bred.”
Despite the racing advantages of his unique conformation, it is possible that Shami was, pure and simple, ugly. Many contemporary reports note that he had a plain head, and some add that his ears were set wide apart and had a noticeable outward droop. In short, he was lop-eared, a shame when one thinks of the cute elf-ears of so many hot-blooded horse breeds. He was a little over at the knee, too. And, of course, there was his disposition. It is a wonder the horse ever got into a studbook at all, never mind being central to both today’s Thoroughbreds and today’s Quarter Horses.
Shami (or El Sham) is found under the name of Godolphin Arabian (rather than Godolphin Barb) in the pedigree of most famous Thoroughbred racehorses today. Whatever you call him, the horse was great, but homely; fast, but mean-spirited; prepotent, but unable to toss anything but bays and the odd gray, never a chestnut. Still, he was bred to all of England’s best mares. His progeny on this side of the Atlantic, who showed their stuff earlier than Shami, have given us horses that make the Triple Crown exciting. He contributed markedly to the desired conformation of the American Quarter Horse. And he gave us, through his progeny Selima, an enduring rivalry that makes life interesting for horse lovers in at least two mid-Atlantic states, a rivalry less upsetting than politics, and even more exciting.
Two Ways to Connect with The Barb
If you want to visit Godolphin country in England, there are two sites that will pull you into the eighteenth century world of horse racing. One is Wandlebury Hills, southeast of Cambridge, England, in a ridge of low chalk hills called the Gog Magog Downs. The area where the Godolphin barns stood was already inhabited in the Bronze Age where a dirt and log ring fort protected inhabitants; the fort had long-since vanished before Shami’s arrival; since his death, the Renaissance era barns themselves have been torn down. However, it is possible to see the grave of the Godolphin Barb horse, maintained in the lands by the Cambridge Preservation Society.
But you can visit the famed Newmarket Races where Shami’s progeny thundered home, taking a new bloodline into a new age. Meets are held in spring and summer; see the racecourse website for 2009 dates to plan your trip. You can stay in Newmarket and get the full atmosphere, but you’ll also endure the crowds. Or, you can stay in nearby historic Sudbury. The Olde Bull and The Black Boy are two excellent choices there. The Olde Bull is a 16th Century coaching inn just outside town. An excellent, family-run small hotel, iIt offers either bed and breakfast, or bed, breakfast and dinner, at moderate rates. The Black Boy is an in-town choice that is also interesting. Iit was mentioned in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, and stands across the street from the house in which the artist Gainsborough was born. Much smaller than The Olde Bull, The Black Boy offers bed and breakfast, and some rooms that are not en suite (which means they share a bath with one other room). Still, it is charming, friendly, and close to Newmarket. Slightly lower tariffs apply than at The Olde Bull.
The Godolphin Estate
If you want to see how most Godolphin horses lived—and possibly a place where Shami was sent for rest and relaxation—visit Godolphin House in Helston, Cornwall. About a four-hour drive from Newmarket, it is an area of rare scenic beauty for people or horses. Godolphin House is owned by the National Trust, and is a work in progress. In fact, the Trust is seeking volunteers to help restore parts of the house next summer. The National Trust is Europe’s largest conservation program, dealing in land as well as building issues. For more information about their Working Holidays program, visit this page of the National Trust website.
Or, you may choose simply to visit and drink in the atmosphere for a day. Because of its unrestored status, the house is not open as often as most Trust houses, so it’s best to call first for the month’s schedule if you’re planning a trip. The stables and gardens are, however, open virtually al year round. The area surrounding the Godolphin estate, like the Gog Magog Hills, was settled before the Iron Age, and it is possible to walk to the tin mines that provided the Godolphin fortune. Better still, however, is a walk around the walled gardens, barely changed since the 14th and 16th centuries, when they were established, and the stableyard. The stables offer a view of the gardens, and luxuriant green fields that any horse would adore.
There are also quaint lodgings in the area. The Godolphin Arms in Marazion is a hotel only a few minute’s drive from Godolphin. It is across from St. Michael’s Mount (ancestral home of the St. Aubyn family, and also run by the National Trust.) The island is reachable by land at low tide, boat all other times, and is worth a side trip. The hotel offers rooms with a view, needless to say, at moderate rates that change according to the season, with the highest tariffs in summer. The area is known as the English Riviera because of its fantastic beaches—swimmable for Yanks about two days a year when the air temperature gets above 78 F. Check the hotel website. Carthew Farm Bed and Breakfast is a small, family-run lodging that will pull you directly into English country life, as Godolphin retainers might have known it. Offering only two double rooms, with en-suite showers, the owners prepare your breakfast and serve it in the charming main farmhouse. Visit their website, While you’re there, you can visit at leisure with Millie the rabbit, Monty the dog and the ponies.