06/01/2001 12:00AM

Impact of foundation sires still felt today

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Inbred 4x4 to the Godolphin Arabian.

That mystical sounding phrase, the meaning of which has been obscured by the sands of time, is one of the keys to the foundation of Thoroughbred racing when it was truly the Sport of Kings, or of English kings, at least.

Eight of the first 12 winners of the Epsom Derby were inbred 4x4 - that is, within the last four generations - to the Godolphin Arabian, while the other four were all inbred at least 5x5 to the same nameless foundation sire. His early influence on the Epsom Derby, which was from its inception in 1780 until after World War I the single most important race in determining Thoroughbred class, is matchless.

Foaled in 1724, the Godolphin Arabian is one of three foundation sires to whom all Thoroughbreds owe their ancestry, the others being the Darley Arabian and the Byerly Turk.

Legend has it that the Godolphin Arabian was discovered by an English agent of Lord Godolphin while pulling a water cart in Paris. Perhaps the toughness displayed on the unpaved mean streets of 18th century Paris played a part in his success as a stallion.

Once established at Lord Godolphin's stable, he is said to have battled a rival stallion, Hobgoblin, for the amorous attentions of the mare Roxana. One of the foals the Godolphin Arabian and Roxana produced was Cade, whose male line lives on to this day.

No fewer than 29 of the first 30 Epsom Derby winners were inbred at least 5x5 to the Godolphin Arabian, the exception being 1807 winner Election, who was inbred 6x5 on both sides, through Cade.

But as important as the Godolphin Arabian was to the development of the Thoroughbred in England, his influence through his male line was soon to be eclipsed by that of the Darley Arabian.

Foaled in 1700 in Aleppo, Syria, home of the world's best Arabians at the time, the Darley Arabian's immediate influence on the Epsom Derby was not quite as complete as that of the Godolphin.

But the winner of the second Epsom Derby, in 1781, Young Eclipse, was by Eclipse, who is generally regarded as the first truly great Thoroughbred racehorse. The winner of all 18 of his races at the ages of 5 and 6, Eclipse was a great-great-grandson of the Darley Arabian, and his male-line influence can be traced to most of today's leading Thoroughbreds.

Eclipse was also the sire of Saltram and Serjeant, winners of the Epsom Derby in 1783 and 1784. More importantly, he was the sire of a horse whose name is usually spelled Pot-8-O's. The horse's illiterate groom, on instructions from his owner to register him with the Jockey Club as Potatoes, instead wrote down the phonetic equivalent, Potoooooooo (eight o's).

Pot-8-O's, a 3-year-old of 1779, was a year too old for the first Epsom Derby. He was the sire of three Epsom Derby winners, most notably Waxy in 1793.

Waxy himself was the sire of four Epsom Derby winners, all of whom were typical of the Darley Arabian-Eclipse line in that they were possessed of great speed and a high temperament.

The blood of horses such as these was soon blended with the blood of Herod, who is a descendant of the third great foundation stallion, the Byerley Turk.

Herod was the sire of Florizel, who was the sire of the the first Epsom Derby winner, Diomed who, when sold to America, would help create the American Thoroughbred family.

Herod was also the sire of Sir Peter Teazle, winner of the 1787 Epsom Derby and the sire of four Epsom Derby winners. The mating of the offspring of Eclipse from the Darley Arabian line and that of Herod from the Byerley Turk line forms the most direct link with the modern Thoroughbred. In fact, Northern Dancer, Nijinsky, Mill Reef, Roberto, and Sadler's Wells can all trace back to the Herod-Eclipse cross.

The influence of the Godolphin Arabian, the Darley Arabian, and the Byerley Turk came when there were far fewer Thoroughbreds than there are today. That is what makes the influence of one of the Herod-Eclipse crosses, Nearco, all the more remarkable in this day and age of the overpopulated Thoroughbred world.

Nearco, the product of Italian breeding genius Federico Tesio, was the founder of a male line that has produced 23 Epsom Derby winners since Dante in 1945, 21 of those since Royal Palace in 1967.

Most of Nearco's Epsom Derby winners come through his grandson Northern Dancer, but he is also represented through the Mossborough-Ballymoss line, the Turn-to-Hail to Reason line, and the Nasrullah-Never Bend line.

This Saturday, 15 of the 22 horses who might still go in the 222nd running of the Epsom Derby descend from Nearco. Chances are that the great stallion and his long distant 18th century predecessors will produce yet another winner of the race which, more than any other, created the legacy of the Thoroughbred.