In the spring of 1780 at famed Newmarket Racecourse, three regal chestnut stallions lined up to compete for a prize of 140 guineas.
The oldest, an 8-year-old named Dorimant, had seen better days on the track. Earlier in the season, the once-successful runner had finished fifth of five, defeated by a talented son of Herod named Woodpecker.
It wouldn’t be easy for old Dorimant here. He faced two others, both by Eclipse, who had left the racing world in shock and awe a decade before in winning all 18 of his starts. Many thought the copper-colored champion to be the best racehorse of all time.
The elder of the Eclipse sons was Pot-8-os – or, for accuracy’s sake, Potoooooooo. The blazed-face colt was named so due to error on the part of a stable lad: the horse’s breeder, the Earl of Abingdon, had asked the boy to write the word “potatoes” on either a corn bin or a stall door. The subsequent misunderstanding and misspelling – Pot(o eight times) – apparently amused the Earl enough to register the blue-blooded chestnut in that name.
Pot-8-os, while not as phenomenal as his sire, was still a respectable racehorse, eventually winning 28 races at the close of his career. He was a 7-year-old at the time of the Newmarket race.
The youngest of the small field was King Fergus, owned by the vibrant man who had also owned Eclipse – Colonel Dennis O’Kelly, a jack of all trades. O’Kelly had purchased Eclipse after his first remarkable race, and purchased this fine son as a yearling from a man named Mr. Carver. He was only five years old and a winner in several starts.
In the end, it was Pot-8-os who would take the Newmarket prize. At stud, the stallion would have lasting influence on the breed, establishing a male line that descends down to some of the biggest names in the breed, including Phalaris, Northern Dancer, and Secretariat.
King Fergus bested old Dorimant, finishing second, though he had lost a shoe in the race. After wrapping up his career at age nine, owned by a different man than Colonel O’Kelly, he began his stud career in the place that many of the best before him had stood for a fee: Yorkshire.
Twelve years after that Newmarket event, a bay colt named Hambletonian was born. A product of the country’s best bloodlines – by King Fergus out of a Highflyer mare – Hambletonian became his sire’s greatest son. Winning 17 of 18 starts, losing only once because he ran off the course, he was his sire’s second St. Leger winner, victorious the year after Beningbrough took the prize.
Hambletonian became just as important and lauded in the breeding shed as he was on the track, beginning a successful male line that saw champion after champion. Blacklock, the first, was described as “a queer-shaped beast, with an enormous fiddle head, but he certainly could gallop.” A decent runner, Blacklock became a champion sire, and his grandson Voltigeur won the Derby in 1850. Voltigeur sired Vedette, a Two Thousand Guineas champion, and Vedette sired Derby winner Galopin.
Then came St. Simon, undefeated runner and remarkable producer. Winning all ten of his career starts, including an Ascot Gold Cup domination by twenty lengths, St. Simon retired to stud and was champion sire in Great Britain and Ireland nine times, and champion broodmare sire another six.
St. Simon sired classic winners like Persimmon and St. Frusquin, great sires like Chaucer and Florizel, and even a Triple Crown winner in Diamond Jubilee. Among St. Simon’s male-line descendants are such stalwarts of the breed like Princequillo, Ribot, and the filly Nogara, dam of the great Nearco. Scores of classic winners from both Great Britain and America trace their sireline back to the incomparable St. Simon.
The distance races went the way of St. Simon, but a decade later, a talented sprinter named Sundridge emerged on the racing scene. Winning 17 of 35 starts, the chestnut stallion stood in both England and France. Despite suffering from low fertility throughout his stud career, Sundridge happens to be the tail-male ancestor of countless champions across the globe.
Five Kentucky Derby winners trace back to Sundridge, including the great champion Count Fleet, who never finished off the board and sealed the Triple Crown deal in the Belmont Stakes by 25 lengths. Interestingly enough, all five of the Derby winners from this line have father-son connections: Reigh Count sired Count Fleet, who sired Count Turf, and Bubbling Over sired Burgoo King.
The aforementioned St. Leger winner Beningbrough, a son of King Fergus and a contemporary of Hambletonian – he lost to the bay stallion on one occasion – also founded a male line with numerous classic winners in countries ranging from Britain to Germany to Australia to Canada. This sireline, while prolific in the 1800s, appears to have died out towards the turn of the 20th century.
As he was on the racetrack, King Fergus was overtaken by Pot-8-os in the breeding shed, especially in the long run. Eclipse’s male line now flows through the oddly-named bay colt who went on to sire Waxy, who sired Whalebone, and so on, and so forth. King Fergus, champion sire in 1797 and tail-male ancestor of Count Fleet and Ribot, died in Yorkshire at the age of 26 in 1801.