Aga Khan III
Aga Khan III

The late Aga Khan III

(Photo : BBC)


By Tony Sweeney

Colonel Hall-Walker, (later Lord Wavertree), a Liverpool businessman who had established his stud at Tully in County Kildare, bred the winners of seven English Classics and, by gifting his bloodstock during World War I, provided the genesis for two National Studs. Yet his greatest contribution to upgrading the thoroughbred was to introduce at the turn of the century a young Indian Prince, the late Aga Khan III, to English racing.

In Memoirs of a Racing Journalist, author Sidney Galtrey quotes from a letter in which the Aga Khan wrote “It was entirely due to Lord Wavertree and my personal friendship for him that I started to race on the English Turf. I would probably never have been known as an owner west of Suez had he not, during and after my visit to Tully in 1904, urged me to take up racing in England.”

Despite his relative unfamiliarity with the English racing scene, the late Aga Khan III was no stranger to thoroughbreds. His family had been associated with horses since 6th century Arabia, and his grandfather established a stud and stable in India in the nineteenth century.

Two centuries before Volume 1 of the General Stud Book, Gervase Markham had recognised the merits of the Arabian horse. An English cavalry officer in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Markham was the author of the earliest book on racehorse training “How to chuse, ride, trayne, and dyet both hunting horses and running horses: With all the secrets thereto discovered.” Here, with the spelling modernised is how Markham divined the qualities of a true Arabian: “One whose wonderful speed both in short and long courses may make our English prickers hold their best runners… him I hold a fit stallion to breed on, and a fit beast for his master to hazard his life on… he hath in him the purity and virtue of all other horses.”

Another attribute of the Arabian horse is and was his ability to perform well under highly variable conditions. On this subject Markham wrote: “They are so excellent for travel that my horse being traveled from a part of Arabia called Angelica to Constantinople, and from there to the hithermost parts of Germany by land and so by sea to England; yet was he so courageous and lively… that by no means could he be ruled.” To this the present Aga Khan can personally attest based on the globetrotting achievements of his splendid stallion Daylami during the 1997 - 1999 seasons.

Returning now to Colonel Hall-Walker and the late Aga Khan III, it is clear that the Colonel may have been instrumental in introducing the Aga Khan to English racing, but unbeknownst to either of them, an event of equal importance was about to occur that would in time seal the Aga Khan’s influence on horse-breeding. An American-bred stallion named Americus and a mare Rhoda B, in foal to Orme, would soon arrive in Ireland thanks to the actions of a very improbable pair of allies, the electorate of New York City and the English Jockey Club. The response of Richard Croker, the notorious “Boss” of Tammany Hall, to the election of a “reform ticket” mayor, was to move with his horses to England. However, following a barring order from Newmarket Heath imposed by the Jockey Club, the county Limerick native returned to the land of his birth.

Croker’s batch of stock was destined to change thoroughbred history. The foal Rhoda B was carrying was Orby, the first Irish-trained horse ever to win the English Derby, and arguably the greatest influence for speed of any 20th century winner of that race.

The following spring Americus covered Palotta and the outcome was the flying Americus Girl. Orby became the grandsire of Cos, and Americus Girl the grand-dam of Mumtaz Mahal. And with that end result you have the names of two of the most influential mares ever to grace an Aga Khan paddock.

Almost twenty years elapsed before the Aga Khan had the means and the time to enter into the English bloodstock market in a manner that would suit his taste for doing things well or not at all. In those intervening years he developed a keen appreciation for what was happening both on the racetrack and at stud. He wrote to Galtrey, “those who pooh-pooh science, knowledge and study in connection with racing do not know what they are talking about.”

The thoroughbred offers a unique field for genetic research. Using the multiple volumes of the General Stud Book and the Racing Calendar, first published, respectively, in 1791 and 1727, one can determine the pedigree and performance of all recorded thoroughbreds over more then two centuries - from the fastest to the slowest, from the strongest to the weakest.

Such study underlines the role of the owner-breeder in upgrading bloodstock. The average winning time of Derby winners in the period 1851-1860, was 2 minutes 55 seconds, fifty years later (1901 - 1910) fourteen seconds had been clipped off that average. In that period splendid foundation mares acquired by Lord Derby (Canterbury Pilgrim) and Lord Astor (Conjure) had ensured that their stables would remain pre-eminent. This was a lesson not lost on the Aga Khan who also recognized that top trainers, top jockeys, and top stud managers were all of equal importance.