Even though Ted Watkins is only a casual fan of Thoroughbred racing, he might know more about the breed’s early history than some of the sport’s most enthusiastic admirers. He owns a copy of the first edition of An Introduction to a General Stud-Book, which was printed in England in 1791. It was the forerunner of The General Stud-Book, the definitive ancestry record for Thoroughbreds that has been publishedby the British company Weatherbys every four years since 1793. Information about all matings and births of Thoroughbreds in Britain and Ireland can be found in The General Stud-Book.
“I’ve always had a general interest in Thoroughbred horses,” said Watkins, who lives on the southern coast of Oregon and operates Gold Beach Books. “Portland Meadows isn’t one of the destination tracks in the world, but I always liked it when I was growing up. When I lived in Philadelphia for many years, I would leave work early in the afternoons to go to Philadelphia Park. I don’t know what I enjoy more than watching the last 100 yards of a race from the rail and seeing the beauty of those animals going by at full speed.”
A 51-year-old retired attorney with a lifelong passion for collecting books, Watkins found An Introduction to a General Stud-Book through a European dealer more than 10 years ago. While he wasn’t searching for volumes about Thoroughbreds specifically, Watkins was intrigued by the opportunity to acquire a humble-looking, brown tome filled with pedigrees.
“I paid what at the time for a rare book was a fair sum, but it wasn’t gigantic,” Watkins said. “Part of my interest was local because of a wealthy Gold Beach businessman named R.D. Hume. He brought horses to Oregon from Europe, and he had a racetrack here many years ago.”
Watkins didn’t know much about an An Introduction to a General Stud-Book when he purchased the volume, but he since has learned more about its background and importance to Thoroughbred breeding with the help of Laurel Gerkman, a Gold Beach realtor, historian, and freelance writer.
The origin of An Introduction to a General Stud-Book can be traced to James Weatherby, who became the secretary of the Jockey Club in England in 1770. According to A History of the General Stud-Book, by Peter Willett, Weatherby was so busy that he needed an assistant, so he hired a nephew, who also was named James, and gave him the responsibility of publishing “An Introduction to a General Stud-Book.” When the task was completed, “the two pillars of racehorse selection and evolution were in place,” Willett wrote.
“This book got me to thinking about who first decided which horses and their lineages would be considered Thoroughbreds,” Watkins said. “In looking back over the history of Thoroughbred racing, it all comes back to The General Stud-Book that Weatherbys has put out for more than 200 years. An Introduction to a General Stud-Book is the foundation, and I’m fascinated by the historical connection. I’m also fascinated by all the trouble that the author had to go to in compiling the information. It was physically a matter of going from breeder to breeder plus gathering all the race programs of the day. It was monumental task, and in the introduction to the book, the author does make reference to the fact it was very difficult trying to determine what had transpired prior to 1791.”
Watkins has looked for, but never found, another copy of An Introduction to a General Stud-Book to purchase.
“There can’t be too many of them that have survived,” Watkins said. “There are large data bases that list millions of books and various auction catalogs, but I’ve never seen another copy listed and I’ve never found another one in private hands. Laurel called Weatherbys, and if I remember correctly, they had one copy. I believe there also are two copies in Scottish libraries and a copy in the New York Public Library.”
Watkins, who is not sure of the book’s value, might set a price and sell his copy of An Introduction to a General Stud-Book later this year.
“I’ve enjoyed reading it, and I’ll be sad to see it go if it does,” he said. But I feel like this book doesn’t really belong in the rare book world per se. Because of its historical significance to Thoroughbred racing, I feel like it’s a Thoroughbred-world sort of item. It would be like a trophy acquisition for somebody among a handful of elite Thoroughbred owners.”