British Museum blog

Tracing racing history

Steve Slack, writer, British Museum

If you’re a fan of horses and horse-racing you may well have been following the action at Royal Ascot last week. The highlight of this year’s meet was the Diamond Jubilee Stakes – named after HM The Queen’s milestone which was marked earlier this month.

Her Majesty is also the royal patron of the British Museum’s current temporary exhibition The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot. As part of the 5,000 year story of the domesticated horse, the exhibition explains the origins of what we now know as the modern Thoroughbred racehorse and the role of the Arabian horse.

It’s a little known fact that all modern Thoroughbreds can trace their lineage back to just three prodigious stallions which were imported into Britain from the Middle East around 300 years ago: the Byerley Turk (1680s), the Darley Arabian (1704), and the Godolphin Arabian (1729).

The winning horse in Saturday’s race was Black Caviar, who can trace her ancestry back to the Darley Arabian. And if you’re interested in tracing the history of other Thoroughbreds, there’s a panel in the exhibition with some of the most famous race horses descended from the Darley Arabian.

Grand Stand Ascot (Gold Cup Day 1839). This shows the first grandstand built at Ascot, with a capacity of 3000, which opened in 1839. The etching also shows Queen Victoria in attendance. The horse Caravan, a descendent of the Darley Arabian via Eclipse, won the Gold Cup that year.


The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot is free and open from 24 May to 30 September 2012.

The exhibition is supported by the Board of Trustees of the Saudi Equestrian Fund, the Layan Cultural Foundation and Juddmonte Farms. In association with the Saudi
Commission for Tourism & Antiquities.

Filed under: The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot

One Response - Comments are closed.

  1. Really sorry that we missed this exhibition, we were unable to get to London during it’s run but we did attend Royal Ascot and have made the pilgrimage to see the grave of The Godolphin Arab near Newmarket . Enjoyed your article.


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Roman control of southern Britain broke down around AD 410. New leaders established Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England, and Roman towns and cities were largely abandoned. Neighbouring communities in Scotland, Ireland and Wales continued to develop their own unique identities. Monasteries in these areas stood out as European centres of art, learning and literacy, perpetuating and reinventing local traditions. Communities here spoke languages that we now call Celtic, and practiced a distinctive form of Christianity.
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Slab of grey sandstone with a cross on one side. From Monifieth, Angus, Scotland, c. AD 800–900. National Museums Scotland.
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Gundestrup cauldron. Iron Age, c. 100 BC–AD 1. Found in Gundestrup, northern Jutland, Denmark. @nationalmuseet, #Denmark.
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The Battersea shield. Iron Age, c. 350–50 BC. Found in the River Thames, London, England.
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