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Book Review

The Byerley Turk: The Incredible Story of the World's First Thoroughbred
by Jeremy James
Stackpole Books, November 2005, 368 pages with 8 pages of black and white photos, hardback

Most people who follow Thoroughbred racing can name the three foundation stallions. All Thoroughbreds trace in tail-male line to either the Darley Arabian, the Godolphin Barb, or the Byerley Turk, but the facts about how they were brought to England to be mated to local racemares have remained a mystery to most people. In his latest book, British turfwriter Jeremy James combines hours of painstaking research and his vivid imagination to come up with an exciting life story of the Byerley Turk.

Foaled around 1679 in a remote Balkan village, the Byerley Turk lived through a very violent time in Europe's history during the reign of the Ottoman Empire. James skillfully includes the horse in that context with his groom, or "seyis", proving to be a master assassin in battle when riding the dark horse named "Azarax" using only a bow and arrow as his weapon. Because he was foaled during a thunderstorm, Azarax does not fear the sound of cannons or gunfire. Azarax and the groom are constantly on the move, from their home in the Balkans, to Constantinople, and to Budapest, while fighting for the Ottomans against the Christians in some of the bloodiest battles ever fought. Surprisingly the horse and groom are never separated, given that Azarax was very vicious and uncontrollable if not handled properly. Normally a horse of this caliber would have been taken away and reassigned once trained for battle.

With the fall of Buda, Azarax and his groom were captured and taken back to England by James Fitzjames who sells the horse to Colonel Robert Byerley. Byerley takes both horse and groom into his care and, unlike other soldiers who have tried, has the horsemanship to handle a horse like Azarax. The Colonel is challenged to a match race, dubbed the King James's Plate, by two other colonels where, cheered on by his men, Byerley aboard Azarax rallied from well back after a poor start to defeat Colonel Heyford's Barb by a length. Finally, the horse that fought for the Ottomans for many years gets to fight for the other side, as Byerley brings him into battle in Ireland. With the war over, Byerley retires from active duty, taking care of the aging Turk until the great stallion passed away in 1703.

Although much of the content is fiction designed to smoothly incorporate the life of the horse into world events at the time, James did this so masterfully that the story sounds very believable indeed. This is truly an epic account of the life of a magnificent animal, extending from the palaces of the Ottoman Empire to the streets of London, including a cast of fascinating historical figures such as the Soliman Chia, Ali-aga Izobegovic, the brutal Sultan Kara Mustafa, bookmaker William Hill, and his most famous owner Colonel Robert Byerley.

This book is less a book about racing and more book about history, and only passing mention is made of the Turk's stud career with no detail at all about his immediate descendents' prowess in racing. James' frequent use of foreign language terminology (especially ancient Turkish) made the earlier chapters difficult to read at times until the key words were understood by the reader through the context, as he often did not define English translations right away if at all. This reviewer cannot recommend this work to fans of contemporary racing history, but horse racing fans who also enjoy learning about world history will appreciate James' artistic tie-in of the life of this very important stallion.

The Byerley Turk has a list price of $34.95 and is available from Amazon.com for $23.07.

Rating:     3.5/5

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