The Illegal Hunt for the Super Horse

One of many interesting lectures at the EMHF* Annual Meeting in Oslo was about the threats of gene doping. Simon Cooper from the British Horseracing Authority and vice chairman of the European and Mediterranean Horse Federation has looked into the risks of gene doping and the possibilities to find ways to test if horses have been gene doped. He remarked:

”DNA can be inserted, substituted, deleted any number of ways. — Gene editing kits can be bought on the internet.”

He also told the delegates about tests in Australia with mice:

”Mice normally will run for about 800 metres before they’ve had enough. After some mice were injected with the stamina protein PEPCK and genetically manipulated, they ran six kilometres.”

The risks for thoroughbred racing is obvious. No gene doping has been found – yet. But part of the problem is ”that we can’t say unequivocally that it has not happened, because there is as yet no test to determine whether or not a horse has been subjected to the gene technique” – which of course is strictly forbidden in the thoroughbred world.

Among horses the most risky period is between conception and birth.

Gene doping could change the development among thoroughbed horses and be a tempting tool for those with criminal purposes. They might want to find a Super Horse.

A Nazi dream

But those dreams are not at all new. Adolf Hitler and the nazis also tried to find a ’’Super Pferd’ during the second World War.  But it was not primarly about thoroughbred horses. It concerned Lipizzaner horses.

”Just as Nazi ideology peddled pseudo-science regarding breeding a human ”master race,” Hitler also believed he could selectively breed horses to create the finest, bravest, and ”purest” war horses in world military history. This decision was not some extracurricular pipe dream of the Führer, but a deliberate response to the country’s poor fortunes during World War I.”

”After World War I, several factors combined to almost destroy horse breeding and equestrian sports in Germany. The numbers of equine casualties were so high during the war that the horse population declined by half. In addition, the inflationary conditions in Germany made the sale and upkeep of horses difficult, and to further complicate matters, Germany was required to export horses as part of the reparations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles”, Elizabeth Letts writes in her book ”The Perfect Horse”.

German leaders genuinely believed they needed more horses for the war effort. (Letts writes that by 1938, their army was using more than 180,000 horses and donkeys—and Hitler was convinced that he needed even more.)

Hitler chose Gustav Rau, a hippologist who had spent years tirelessly promoting Germany’s horse-breeding industry to create a e perfectly pure ’super breed”. To do so, Rau set his eyes on the famous Lipizzaner stallion, a beautiful and regal breed. Rau believed he could create legions of identical, pure white military horses through aggressive inbreeding of Lipizzaners in just three years, writing, ”We have to promote inbreeding of the best bloodlines.” (Rau clearly did not understand the link between genetic defects and inbreeding.)

To aid Rau’s mission, German soldiers began stealing purebred Lipizzaner stallions from famed stud farms and riding schools across Europe. ”It was a quirk of Nazi philosophy, so inhumane to humans, that animals were treated with the utmost care and kindness”, Letts writes. By 1942, Rau was in possession of nearly every purebred Lipizzaner in the world.

But the nazis also wanted to improve the thoroughbred population in Germany. In 1940 when France was conquered, the Nazis imported or rather stole 600 quality mares and some leading stallions. Among them were Pharis II and Brantome.

Stolen Stallions

Pharis II was bred in 1936. He was by Pharos and was owned by the mighty owner Marcel Boussac.

Pharis didn’r run as a juvenile. He ran only three times in his life. He was unbeaten as a three year old. What would have been his fall campaign was interrupted by the war. The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe was cancelled due to the war.

Among his victories were Prix du Jockey Club and Grand Prix de Paris. Pharis was retired as four year old and became a successful, versatile stallion. He got four winners of the Prix du Jockey Club and also a winner of Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. He was leading sire in 1944, 1950, 1951 and 1952 in France.

There would not be any Super Horse or ’Super Pferd’ in Germany, but Pharis left one champion filly there, Asterblüte, who won the German Derby, 1000 Guineas and Oaks in 1946. She is mother in the fifth geheration to Urban Sea, winner of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Brantome (by Blandford) was older than Pharis, bred in 1931. He was unbeaten as a two- and three year, owned by baron Edouard Rothschild.

Among his victories were French 2000 Guineas, St Leger and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. One of his best sons was Vieux Manoir.

Both Paris II and Brantome were like many of the mares repatriated to France in 1945.

More dramatically was the rescue of 375 Lipizzaner horses. They were taken on May 12th 1945 from a stud in Czechoslovakia, which was occupied by Nazi Germany, to the south of Bavaria through a strange cooperation by the German Stud manager and the Americans. Both parties had the same wish to save the horses from the Russians. They knew that the Russian soldiers would shoot and eat the horses. The American effort was made possible by the aid from the famous general Patton who was very fond of horses.


*EMHF is short for the European and Mediterranean Horserecing Federation

This article was written with the help of Simon Cooper, from BHA, the magazine The Trainer, the author Elizabeth Letts, and Google.

Pharis II

Pharis II, champion racehorse and sire, illegally brought to Germany 1940-45


A visit to the famous Lipizzaner stud Lipica in Slovenia. Photo: Toni Sturm