by Mary Jane Parkinson
We think of Randolph Huntington, Spencer Borden, Homer Davenport, and others as early importers of Arabian horses, but Alexander Keene Richards imported them as much as half a century earlier.
Mr. Richards (usually known as A. Keene Richards) lived the life of a wealthy, respected, well educated, well-spoken, and successful Thoroughbred breeder at Blue Grass Park, his farm near Georgetown, Kentucky. He was not one to sit and rock on the front porch of his home and contemplate the blue grass.
His curiosity had him puzzling about the long-term influence of Arabian blood on the Thoroughbred and, in 1851, he hied himself off to Europe to get some first-hand answers. In England particularly he studied the use of Arabian stallions (the Darley, the Byerley, and the Godolphin) on English mares. Through his studies, he found the current English horses to be sadly in need of a new infusion of Arabian blood. With that insight, and his study of horses in several other European and Asian countries and Egypt, Richards determined to go on to the desert to see for himself the quality of desert-bred Arabians that might be obtained. With that trip he became the first American to travel to the desert for the purpose of buying Arabians. The journey went fairly well until Richards and his fellow travelers arrived in Syria. There Richards became ill, delaying the trip by several months.
In the desert, Richards bought two Arabian stallions, Mokhladi and Massoud, and a mare Sadah. He trained a dromedary to saddle for his personal mount and, for fun and recreation, frequently competed in the local camel races. Back home, he carefully chose his top Thoroughbred mares to breed to Mokhladi and Massoud. The mares produced show winners, beating Thoroughbreds in yearling competition, but later on they did not show the improvement he hoped for in racing speed. He also bred Mokhladi to Sadah, thus becoming the first American breeder of purebred Arabians — with the smallest possible breeding program.
Almost as soon as his imports arrived at Blue Grass Park, Mr. Richards began planning a second visit to the desert. This time (1855) he took with him his cousin Morris Richards and an artist friend Edward Troye so that Troye might create paintings of the desert scenes and, with his knowledge of equine anatomy, aid in selecting animals for purchase. Richards’ two-year-long planning period did not assure success. The Syrian servant Yusef Bedra who was to serve as a guide and interpreter in the desert became suddenly ill and died. That meant a delay as Richards was dependent on the young man to negotiate with the desert sheikhs. So Richards and his fellow travelers spent some months learning the Arabic language.
In Damascus, Richards contacted Sheikh Midjuel el Mezrab of the Anazeh tribe. The sheikh was married to Lady Jane Digby of England (Lady Ellenborough), and when Lady Anne Blunt and her husband Wilfrid Scawen Blunt traveled that area several decades later, they were guests at the sheikh’s luxurious home. Sheikh Midjuel escorted the Richards party on to Palmyra, a distance of about 150 miles, and somehow managed to avoid contact with the Shammar tribe with which he was currently feuding, probably thereby saving his head. In Egypt, Richards saved a different kind of head — the mummified head of a former Egyptian queen.
This time, Richards brought back from the desert two stallions, a colt, a mare, and two dromedaries. He began to hear some praise for his efforts, but generally Arabians in the United States were not well known for their versatility and usefulness during those years, and they had to prove themselves.
Then there began the rumbles that threatened a civil war in the United States. In 1861 the battles began. “Damnyankees at the gate.” Richards joined the Confederate Army, attained the rank of an officer, and fought at the battle of Shiloh.
Blue Grass Park was damaged if not destroyed, and the horses were sold, some at public auction. Although some considered Richards’ experiment a failure, others believed he was justified in his Arabian enterprise. But it was too close in time, both in years and in horse generations for it to be fairly evaluated.
Richards died at Blue Grass Park in January 1881, age 54. He’d spent his fortune on his horse breeding experiments, but through those experiments, he’d provided examples for future breeders — examples that later led to the popular use of Arabian blood to benefit other breeds.
Here are some bits of wisdom and some observations of A. Keene Richards’s life and adventures.
Having inherited a love and admiration for the horse, and a desire to possess the highest bred and noblest type of his race, I determined to examine for myself the most authentic history of the horse and, without prejudice, select from the stock I preferred — whether it might be at home or abroad — from the aristocratic paddocks of England, the mountains of Morocco, the sandy plains of the Sahara, or the rocky deserts of Arabia. — A. Keene Richards
Mr. Richards, as you suppose, was a well-informed and traveled gentleman, with pleasant manners, and a fine conversation. At his death, he left a widow, and three daughters. Two daughters married. — Mr. Richards’ cousin Morris Richards who was a part of the second journey to the desert.
Faithful portraits of three of my stallions are introduced in this pamphlet and, those who are judges of form, can see for themselves and compare their opinions with other importations. The portraits are photographed by Elrod of Lexington, Kentucky, from sketches by that eminent artist Edward Troye. The proportions are strictly correct, and anyone who has the curiosity, may measure the comparative points with any Thoroughbred of known merit. The height of each horse is given accurately, and not in the usual way of measuring part of the stallion’s neck for his height.
— A. Keene Richards, in an introduction to the 1857 pamphlet he produced entitled, “A. Keene Richards’ Arabian Horses Moklhadi, Massoud, and Sacklowie.”
… a gentleman of romantic history, Keene Richards, Esq. — The 1883 description of Richards by a fellow Kentucky breeder, on inspection of a later generation of the Richards imports.
Mr. Richards’ stock looks well and is generally of fine size and sound, and if he fails to get a winner, he has a horse that will command a good price for any purpose. — A visitor to Blue Grass Park after the second importation.