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    Development of Standardbred in the UK & Ireland
Development of Standardbred in the UK & Ireland
3 horses. Source: Midjourney

Development of Standardbred in the UK & Ireland

Trotting has been a well-liked sport in Great Britain for a long time, particularly during the 18th and 19th centuries when there were numerous long-distance match races on the roads. Towards the end of the 19th century, trotting races became more formal, taking place on grass or all-weather tracks. The horses used in these races were typically native to the specific areas and included breeds such as the Norfolk Trotter, Hackney, and Welsh Cob. However, during the later part of the 19th century, many horses were imported into Great Britain for racing purposes.

Portrait of horse. Source: Midjourney
Portrait of horse. Source: Midjourney

Origins of the Breed

In the United States, the American Standardbred breed was developed by crossing a Thoroughbred stallion named Messenger, which had been imported from Britain in 1788, with local harness horses. The breed was named after the standard time of 2 minutes 30 seconds for one mile, established in 1879, which the horses had to meet by pacing or trotting. Both pacing and trotting Standardbreds were brought to Britain from America, and some of them were subsequently exported to Australia and New Zealand as well. Horses were also imported from Europe and even from Iceland, with Icelandic ponies, predominantly pacers, gaining popularity between 1890 and 1920.

The Trotting Union of Great Britain, established in 1889, published the first Stud Book for trotting horses in Britain. Mr. F Cathcart, the Secretary, conceived the idea, and it was based on the Racing Calendar of the Alexandra Park Trotting Club, incorporating information from various other tracks. The initial Stud Book was printed in 1892 and continued to be produced annually until around 1901.

Horse Standards

The Stud Book was created to establish a breed of trotting horses in Great Britain and it outlined the rules for defining a trotting-bred horse. These rules were as follows:

1. Any stallion that has a personal record of two minutes and 50 seconds (2.50) or better.

2. Any mare or gelding that has a record of 2.50 or better.

3. Any horse that is the sire of two animals with a record of 2.50 or better.

4. Any horse that is the sire of one animal with a record of 2.50 or better, provided that:

   - The horse has a personal record of 2.55 or better, or

   - The horse is the sire of two other animals with a record of 2.55 or better, or

   - The horse has a sire or dam that is already a standard animal.

5. Any mare that has produced an animal with a record of 2.50 or better.

6. The offspring of a standard horse when the mother is a standard mare.

7. The female offspring of a standard horse when the mother is a mare sired by a standard horse.

8. The female offspring of a standard horse when the mother's dam is a standard mare.

9. Any mare that has a record of 2.55 or better, and whose sire or dam is a standard animal.

10. Horses whose sire or dam are standard in the country where born.

*For ponies measuring 13 hands 3 inches or under, the same rules apply, but the time standard is 10 seconds slower.

Only the Trotting Union of Great Britain recognised and approved the records, and it cost 5 shillings to register, which would be equivalent to about £120 today. In the initial Stud Book, six mares were registered, five of which had no breeding according to rule 2, while one was registered under rule 5. The Stud Book also listed six stallions, two imported from America, two from Denmark, one bred in Ireland from imported parents, and one bred in Scotland. A new rule was introduced for the second Stud Book. These ten rules remained the basis for all registrations in the Trotting Stud Book of Great Britain & Ireland until it likely ceased in 1902. However, annual registrations were still documented and published in 'The Trotting World.' By the early 1900s, there were approximately 70 registered mares and 70 stallions.

When the Racing Calendar discontinued publication, the only regular printed feature in Britain was the Trotting World. It was a weekly magazine that was published in London from 1902 to 1932 and covered all regions of Great Britain and Ireland. The reports often included information about the breeding of racing horses, but there was no published Stud Book during that time. References were made to the need for a Stud Book, and it was reported that there were discussions in the early 1920s to publish one again, but it seems that it did not materialise. After the Trotting World ceased publication, there was no official journal dedicated to Harness Racing or the breeding of Standardbreds in Britain.

Development of a Guide Book

In 1963, the opening of the Prestatyn race track in North Wales brought renewed attention to horse breeding, which was subsequently documented in the annual pacing and trotting records published by the United Kingdom Trotting Association. In 1967, Mrs Smart, the secretary to the United Kingdom Trotting Association, compiled Volume 1 of The Harness Race-Horse Stud Book of Great Britain. This was an immense undertaking, as it involved tracing several generations of horses without written records as references. Mrs Smart gathered much of the information from horse owners and trotting enthusiasts, laying the groundwork for a Stud Book dedicated to trotting and pacing horses in Great Britain.

In the first volume, Mrs Smart clarifies, “This first publication has been compiled from voluntary registration by interested owners, and because no records of breeding ever having been kept, no responsibility can be accepted for any mistakes, although a great deal of research has been made in an effort to ensure that details of breeding are correct.” This accomplishment greatly contributed to the advancement of harness racing in Great Britain.

In 1976, The British Harness Racing Club published the Stud Book, and subsequently, the association continued to publish updates every three or four years, with the last one being Volume 8 in 1993.

In the late 1990s, with the establishment of STAGBI (The Standardbred and Trotting Horse Association of Great Britain & Ireland), comprehensive data on all Standardbred horses in Great Britain and Ireland, whether involved in racing or not, began to be collected. This marked the first time that trotting and pacing horses were officially recognised as a distinct breed rather than solely as racehorses.

Similar to the rest of Britain, Ireland had not previously encompassed all trotting and pacing horses in its records, although many individuals and organisations had kept various sets of records. Finally, all available information was consolidated to form a breed society for all British and Irish Standardbred horses. The first Stud Book, covering the years 2000-2004, was published in 2006 after extensive efforts to merge multiple databases. Volume 2 (2005-2008) was made available in 2009.

Horse. Source: Midjourney
Horse. Source: Midjourney

Managing the Breed

Tracing the lineage of harness horses in the country has always been a challenging task due to the absence of published records, which could span several decades. Additionally, horse owners had a common practice of frequently changing their horses' names, further complicating the process. Throughout the twentieth century, it was customary for horses to race under one name in one region and then assume a different name in another area. In some cases, horses even had three or four different names over their lifetimes. Only recently has the practice of changing names been prohibited, and measures such as identification through passports and microchips have significantly enhanced the integrity of breeding and racing.

The Standardbred breed is now officially recognised and documented in Britain. This breed has been meticulously developed over generations to adapt to the specific challenges of the harness racing scene in the country. Whether competing on the hard tracks that emphasise speed or participating in the grass meetings held in the traditional trotting areas of the North, West, and Ireland, Standardbreds have proven their versatility.

In 2016, the Irish Harness Racing Association took on the responsibility of recording Standardbreds born and residing in Ireland, establishing its independence from STAGBI.

Over time, STAGBI's role has evolved, and it is crucial to acknowledge its two distinct functions:

1. As a Breed Society, STAGBI maintains a Stud Book, preserving the breed's lineage and pedigrees.

2. As a Government-approved Passport Issuing Organisation (PIO), STAGBI is responsible for implementing the Equine Identification Regulations mandated by the UK Government.

Regarding the first role, STAGBI is the recognised Standardbred Breed Society in the UK and represents this status on an international level through the International Trotting Association.

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