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For those of us who can remember the days of black and white television, there was nothing more inspiring for a youngster than watching an all-black clad Hopalong Cassidy, silver guns blazing, on his proud steed Topper, a magnificent pure white horse with a long forelock and flowing mane.

There was no way William Boyd will have looked as imposing if his horse was a populist bay or brown.

There is something about a pure white horse that gets the adrenalin pumping and filmmakers, novelists and storytellers often have use the imagery of the white horse as a method of emphasising all that is good and just.

Medieval knights are usually depicted triumphantly riding into battle on elegant white chargers.

In the book and film of Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings, the white wizard Gandalf fought off the evil hordes of the Dark Lord upon his white wonder horse Shadowfax.

In the world of racing thoroughbreds, white horses officially have been around for more than a century (the first official Jockey Club-registered white thoroughbred was in North America in 1896), but their appearance on our racetracks as been as rare as a happy bookmaker; most people haven’t seen one. The tale of the white thoroughbred makes intriguing reading.

There was a time, even well onto the 20th century when superstition and ignorance faced breeders when a white foal surprisingly appeared.  Some breeders regarded the event as “unlucky” and secretly culled their white foals. Others thought the white foals were albino, and thus faced a life with sight and other inherent issues, as albinos do in humans and other animals. The white offspring were sent to show homes rather than Bart Cummings.

White thoroughbreds are not albino – albinos have a distinct blue eye, white horses have dark eyes. White is a true colour, one of six thoroughbred colours – along with Bay, Brown, Chestnut, Black and Grey – although it is extremely unusual. A white foal can appear from parents of any colour, although both parents need to carry the gene, whereas a grey foal must have one parent that is grey.

The correct term for the white colour in horses is sabino. A pure white horse is maximum sabino.

In some cases white horses also can harbour their own inherent problems, but in reality they have all the genetic racing capabilities of a Phar Lap or Weekend Hussler – the ability to run fast – it’s just that they look different.

The white horse’s skin is pink. The dark patches that appear are not changes in hair colour but dark patches of skin. When a white horse is washed, the pink colour of the skin stands out like a flamingo amongst a flock of magpies.

The following is a story written by me in 2009 and published in The Thoroughbredmagazine, following the sale of a white filly – by Zabeel from Carmina Burana – for $270,000 at the Magic Millions yearling sale. That filly, named The Opera House, won her first race, as a 4YO mare, at Wyong on June 30.

IT’S NOT EASY BEING WHITE

When hip number 583 stepped into the ring at the Magic Millions Gold Coast in March, eager photographers circled the ring like paparazzi; cameras whirled, flashes lit up the filly like a starlet on the red carpet in Cannes. The hum around the sale ring was long and loud, prompting the auctioneer to thump his gavel for attention.

On paper, the yearling was attractive, but nothing out of the ordinary to draw such attention.

The catalogue page read that she is a daughter of champion sire Zabeel (B h 1986, Sir Tristram-Lady Giselle, by Nureyev) from the Star Way mare Carmina Burana (Ch m 1995, Star Way-Benediction, by Day Is One), a mare that has been disappointing as a broodmare (one winner from four foals of racing age), but who still holds some commercial bragging rights as a half-sister to one of our greats, the 1997 Group 1 Emirates Melbourne Cup winner Might And Power (B g 1993, Zabeel-Benediction, by Day Is One), a dual Australian Horse of the Year.

The selling agents had plenty to hang their hat on with lot 583 – “this filly was a three-quarter sister to a champion”.

The bidding was brisk, and the hammer came down to the nod of Newcastle trainer Kris Lees at a price of $270,000. In stepped entrepreneurial larrikin John Singleton to claim the filly was bought on his request. He liked her pedigree, but he loved her colour, because in the flesh, this filly presented a vastly different story. A head-turner. An equine Marilyn Munro. She gleamed under the lights, as white as snow. A rarity, one of only 100 or so registered white thoroughbreds in the world.

Singleton, it seems, saw beyond her racetrack capabilities to the promotional advantage of owning a rare white thoroughbred – the filly was bought to help promote his Newcastle-based boutique beer label, Bluetongue. The white filly’s future was to be decided between her racetrack talents and her ability to “sell” a boutique ale. Such is the life of a celebrity, a mere corporate commodity of the rich and famous.

The filly isn’t a freak or a mutation. A fluke maybe, and certainly a novelty, but nothing unearthed from the dungeons of a Frankenstein thriller. Her bloodlines carry the rare white gene despite the fact her parents have barely a speck of white on them. Zabeel is a true, black pointed bay, while Carmina Burana is a lovely, rich chestnut, like her sire Star Way (Ch h 1977, Star Appeal-New Way, by Klairon) and her dam. Zabeel is a dominant producing bay, meaning he hasn’t produced one chestnut, only bays, browns and grey (and only when the dam is grey).

Interestingly, like Zabeel, two of Australia’s other champion sires, Danehill (B h 1986, Danzig-Razyana, by His Majesty) and his son Redoute’s Choice (B h 1996, Danehill-Shantha’s Choice, by Canny Lad), also are dominant producing bays, and also due to their bloodlines, there is every chance either stallion could sire a white offspring if mated to a mare who carries the sabino gene.

So where does this “throw-back” colour come from in the vast history of the thoroughbred – a line of refined breeding that stretches back nearly four centuries to one stallion, the unbeaten champion Eclipse, and his two important Arab ancestors – the Darley Arabian and the Godolphin Arabian – and another Arabian, the Byerley Turk. Eclipse (Ch h 1764, Marske-Spilletta, by Regulus) and the three Arabian stallions appear in the pedigree of every racing thoroughbred in the world. There is no doubt the white colour of lot 583 has its links beyond the historic breeding farms of England’s gentry in the late 17th century – to the desert sands of the Middle East.

Intense research by geneticists and lovers of this unique colour believe they have identified the link that produces what is called the maximum white gene. And its origins are certainly not obscure. One of the “culprits”, it seems, is one of the most influential sires in history, England’s little chestnut champion Hyperion. In fact, that is not quite correct, it is more than likely that Hyperion’s pure bay dam, the wonderful matron Selene, is the source of the rare colour. Hyperion, because he is the founder of some of our most influential sire-lines, including Australia’s Star Kingdom line, in most cases has spread “the blood”, so to speak. Selene has had influence beyond Hyperion, through her other offspring, and she bobs up in the pedigrees of a number of white horses without Hyperion blood.

Which is where Zabeel gets his ability to pass on the white gene. The third dam of his sire, Sir Tristram, is Selene’s daughter All Moonshine. The Camina Burana filly is not the first time Zabeel has influenced the production of a white horse. His son I Conquer is the sire of New Zealand’s most recent racing novelty, the white filly Legally White (Wh f 2002, I Conquer-Matilda, by Hermod), who has a record of one win from nine starts on the south island.

The other widely regarded source is England’s star sprinter of 100 years ago, the “spotted wonder” The Tetrarch (Gr h 1911, Roi Herode-Vahren, by Bona Vista), a registered grey but some people, including noted Victorian horseman, and lover and breeder of white thoroughbreds, Brendan Page, believe The Tetrarch’s true colour was white, or overo sabino, meaning an off-shoot of the pure white gene that is a mixture of white with colour.

Page, who claims to have 21 white thoroughbreds on his two Seymour properties, not all registered to race, but all descendants of a mare that raced in Victoria in the late 1960s, the white Glacial (Wh m 1966, Grey Marwin-Milady Fair, by Jambo). In fact, Page can probably boast the only “herd” of white thoroughbreds in the world that directly represents five unbroken generations of white, racing thoroughbreds. His white horses come via his late stallion Colourful Gambler (1986, from Lots Of Speed, by Live Arrow), a white son of Glacial’s son, Khaleben. The white Khaleben (1972, by Khalif) proved himself a good racehorse, winning at Flemington before being retired to limited opportunities at stud.

When the Zabeel-Carmina Burana filly sold in March, it was widely reported that the last white thoroughbred to race in Australia was the Gai Waterhouse-trained filly The Bride (Wh m 1991, Star Shower-Salomeneo, by Idomeneo) – who retired a maiden after 11 starts.

That statement couldn’t have been further from the truth. Only last November, Page raced his colt, the aptly named High Rail Curious (Wh c 2004, Highrail Danehill-Like A Gambler, by Colourful Gambler), at Benalla, in a 1206m maiden in January, 2008. The powder white colt failed to beat a runner home, and Page had to suffer jibes from his fellow trainers about his “circus” horse, but the colt’s lack of racing talent is not because he is white.

“He wasn’t suited in that short race. He’s bred to stay, so he won’t get warm until he gets over more ground,” he said.

Page believes after studying photos of The Tetrarch that the brilliant racehorse, and influential sire, was white, with his coat spattered with the characteristic oblong dark patches as if someone had flicked a paint laden brush in his direction.

“I have no doubt he is white. It’s rare to find a pure white, they usually have some dark pigment on their skins like he did, which seems to develop as they get older. It’s just that in those days, the officials didn’t recognised The Tetrarch’s colour as white, and he was registered as grey,” Page said.

Without being bogged down with a detailed, technical study of pedigrees, in simple terms multiple doses of The Tetrarch appears in the pedigrees of Page’s white horses through the influence of his famous daughter Mumtaz Mahal, who is the granddam of the great sire Nasrullah, and she also prominently appears in the pedigree of Northern Dancer’s granddam, the equally dominant Almahmoud, through her sire Mahmoud, like Nasruallah, also a grandson of Mumtaz Mahal.

The Bride has quadruple crosses of Hyperion (and his dam Selene) blood. Hyperion is best known in Australia as the grandsire of the great Star Kingdom, the grandsire of The Bride’s sire Star Shower. There is no trace of The Tetrarch in The Bride’s pedigree, giving credence to the theory that there are two distinct bloodlines carrying this white gene.

Zabeel, of course, also has the cross of both bloodlines. His dam is by Nureyev, one of Northern Dancer’s best sons. Northern Dancer, who has crosses of Selene and The Tetrarch in his pedigree, is one of the reasons so many of the modern day thoroughbreds have so much white splashed all over their chestnut, brown and bay bodies. Such is the influence of Northern Dancer, that we should stand by for more unusually coloured racehorses.

A study of photos Northern Dancer and paintings of his direct sire-line ancestor, the Darley Arabian, show a distinct similarity – both are richly coloured with three white shocks and a white blaze. It’s quite possible the white gene comes through the Darley Arabian who was imported to England from Syria in 1700.

Another Australian white horse that caused a stir around the same time The Bride appeared is a mare suitably named Our White Lady (Wh m 1991, Brazen Bay-Moncharm, by Charlton), who was exported to North America in 1998. Our White Lady, who was trained by Noel Doyle on the Gold Coast, was barred from training the normal dawn hours because she was considered dangerous – her white coat frightened other horses as she galloped like a ghost through the morning gloom. Her only start was a distant last (beaten 53 lengths!) in a 1300m maiden at Eagle Farm in 1994.

Page has had a similar training-track incident with High Rail Curious. “Sometimes I jog him in a cart, and one morning he was trotting around the sand track at Seymour, when a horse and rider spooked at seeing him, and a girl was dumped on the track. She wasn’t impressed,” he said.

A study of Our White Lady’s pedigree shows that she is by a Star Kingdom (Hyperion) line stallion, but it is her granddam Comme Un Éclair that is very interesting. Comme Un Éclair is by Star Kingdom’s son Shifnal, from the mare Jean, by a son of Hyperion from a granddaughter of The Tetrarch. So here we have a triple cross of Hyperion (and Selene) and a healthy dose of The Tetrarch.

When Our White Lady was three, Warner Bros. movie moguls tried to buy her. Amazingly, considering her lack of racetrack ability, a price of $50,000 was rejected. Our White Lady now lives in luxury at Norsire Farm, Vancouver, where one of her sons Pure White Gold (by the rare palomino thoroughbred Billionaire), a Jockey Club registered white thoroughbred, is standing at stud, but serving mainly non-thoroughbred show quality mares.

The Bride, owned in Queensland by Elkington Park Stud, has produced only one white registered thoroughbred foal, a colt born in 2003 by Lordly Looker (B h 1988, El Gran Senor-Lifestyle, by Manifesto), a stallion riddled with the blood of Hyperion, Selene and The Tetrarch. Unfortunately, the colt, nicknamed “Spooky” died of colic at the age of two.

In 1999, a white colt was born to the mare Joyella (B m 1990, Koryo-Supreme Joy, by Never In Doubt). The colt, by Piazzetta (Ch h 1983, Star Appeal-New Way, by Klairon), a brother to Star Way, hasn’t been registered to race, but he is used as a show stallion under the name Prince Of Snowden.

There is very little Brendan Page hasn’t done in racing. A former jockey and harness racing trainer and driver, and highly respected horse breaker, he also has the ability to talk the leg off a wooden chair. To get bailed up by him is like being cornered by a blue-heeler pup.

Page’s passion is horses; he’ll talk about them until not only have the cows come home, but out and back again. And he likes to win, but you get the impression at his Seymour stables, as six coloured stallions sleepily stand nose to nose in their sandy yards, that he also loves looking at them. And if you are going to look at them, they might as well be pretty as a picture.

What Page has developed is unique in the world. John Singleton didn’t need to spend $270,000 to buy his white horse; he only had to ask a fellow larrikin in Brendan Page for a loan of one – at a fee, of course.

Footnote: The Opera House, trained by Kris Lees, had a knee operation in 2010.

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