Basilisk Defended

by R.J. Cadranell II
from The CMK Record Spring 1992 X/I, Copyright 1992

Photos courtesy AHOF and the late Lady Anne Lytton [BEREYDA]; captions by the editor.

Ever since the beginning of modern Arabian horse breeding in the English speaking world, it has been customary to question the origins of other people’s stock. Among the foundation horses of the Blunts, probably the one attracting the most attention over the last thirty or forty years is a fine-boned little mare named BASILISK.

BASILISK was a grey mare, foaled in 1876 according to Crabbet records, although the GSB states 1875. H.B.M. Consul at Aleppo, James Skene, purchased her for the Blunts at Deyr in February of 1878. He bought her from Abd el Jadir, a resident of that town, for £75. BASILISK’s history prior to this has been the subject of much commentary over the years. The story is told in brief in her entry in the General Stud Book, and with a little more detail in the reference pedigree section of the second volume of the stud book of the Arab Horse Society. The Crabbet herdbook, which has a more complete account than either published stud book, says that her dam was a white mare

“stolen by Faris Assaat from the desert. Neddi ibn ed Derri had sold the mare on shares to an Abadat (Sebaa Anazeh) and it was from him that she was stolen. Sire said to be a bay Seglawi of same strain. Faris Assaat sold the dam to Abd el Jadir of Deyr on the Euphrates in whose possession Basilisk was foaled.”

Since neither published stud book mentioned her sire, and since BASILISK was born in a town rather than with the Bedouin, for years BASILISK’s provenance lacked enough information that some people in America connected to “purist” breeding movements regarded her with suspicion. Animals acceptable for “purist” breeding often traced to foundation animals with backgrounds more murky than BASILISK’s. Some dismissed these with the explanation that the lines had passed through the hands of breeders known (or believed) to have insisted on verifiable stock.

That the Blunts also fell into this category escaped them. Ever since the appearance of Borden’s The Arab Horse in 1906, American breeders have known that Lady Anne Blunt wrote that it was

“a fundamental principle at the Crabbet Arabian Stud that no stallion, however individually excellent, [was] eligible for service if there [was] any doubt or lack of information as to a true Arabian descent…”

Lady Anne Blunt’s use of *BERK as a sire should have been enough to validate the BASILISK line.

The year 1978 saw the publication of Archer, Pearson, and Covey’s The Crabbet Arabian Stud, Its History and Influence. Lady Anne Blunt was quoted on the subject,

In one instance, that of Basilisk whose dam had been stolen from Ibn ed Derri by one of the Abadat tribe [sic], authentication was not obtained for three years not until we visited Ibn ed Derri in the desert—if we had not succeeded her descendants would not have counted as pure-bred, and no stallion of her or of her posterity could have been used as a sire.

Excerpts from Lady Anne Blunt’s journals were published in 1986. According to the journals, the visit to Neddi ibn ed Derri was in April of 1881:

We have enquired about Basilisk. Neddi says that eight years ago a white mare, of his Seglawyehs, was stolen by people from Aleppo, from a Sebaa one of the Abadat to whom Neddi had sold her in shares, and there seems no doubt that Basilisk is her daughter.

The exact date of BASILISK’s arrival in England is difficult to fix. Crabbet herdbook records quoted by Archer, Pearson and Covey, and by Peter Upton in Desert Heritage, give 1878. This seems to be incorrect. The first Arabians arrived at Crabbet in two batches during the summer of 1878. Archer et al. list the animals included in both batches. BASILISK was not one.

In December of 1878 the Blunts sent for a number of horses Skene was keeping for them in Aleppo. In explanation, footnote 24 in the published version of Lady Anne’s journals reads,

“The previous April, the Blunts had left with Skene the mares Pharaoh and Queen of Sheba as well.”

In October Skene had purchased PHARAOH for the Blunts. He notified the Blunts “late in the autumn” that he had acquired QUEEN OF SHEBA on their behalf. Lady Anne Blunt wrote in Crabbet records that since QUEEN OF SHEBA “could not be safely left in Aleppo we had her sent (with Pharaoh, Francolin and Basilisk) to Egypt for the winter.” According to the GSB, FRANCOLIN’s 1879 colt FARIS (by Kars) was foaled in Egypt. GSB volume XIV lists PHAROAH, QUEEN OF SHEBA, BASILISK and FRANCOLIN as imported in 1879. When the 1879 imports arrived at Crabbet, the Blunts were on the trip which included their pilgrimage to Nejd and “nightmare journey,” as well as a visit to India. In August of 1879 they saw the horses at Crabbet again.

As of August, the three or four year old BASILISK was already under saddle. One day that month, six year old Judith Blunt was put on her back. This was likely the first Arabian she ever rode. By the time Judith was eleven, the mare was such a favorite of hers that Judith could “bring tears into her eyes for Basilisk at any moment.”

PHAROAH, QUEEN OF SHEBA, FRANCOLIN, and BASILISK apparently arrived late enough in 1879 that they all missed the breeding season, Crabbet’s first. BASILISK’s first foal at Crabbet was the 1881 filly BOZRA. BOZRA has the distinction of being Crabbet’s earliest foal to have influence in the long term breeding program.

BASILISK’s complete production record at Crabbet, extracted from GSB, is as follows:

  • 1881 gr f BOZRA, by Pharoah
  • 1882 no produce
  • 1883 gr f BALSAM, by Kars
  • 1884 gr f BUSTARD, by Kars

In August of 1884 the Blunts sold BASILISK to the Duke of Westminster. She left Crabbet Park on the first of September, after her foal was weaned. Her subsequent production follows:

  • 1885 c by Kars
  • 1886 ch f by Bend Or (TB)
  • 1887 b c by Newton (TB)
  • 1888 ch f by Golden Cross (h.-b.)
  • 1889 barren
  • 1890 gr f by Downpatrick (TB)
  • 1891 barren and shot

Crabbet records as published in Desert Heritage state that BASILISK died of liver disease.

The writer does not know whether BASILISK blood is found in modern Thoroughbreds. Lady Wentworth wrote in Thoroughbred Racing Stock that BASILISK’s 1886 filly was the dam of ALFRAGAN, and that “Alfragan in 1894 won the Dee Stakes and also the Drayton Handicap at Goodwood by six lengths” (2nd ed. p. 303).

Although BUSTARD did produce two foals at Crabbet, BOZRA became BASILISK’s link to modern Arabian breeding. This was through BOZRA’S three daughters to live to maturity. The first of these, *BUSHRA (by Azrek), is important to American breeding through her son *IBN MAHRUSS and daughter SIRA. At Crabbet the line was to develop through *BUSHRA’s younger three-quarter sisters, BUKRA and BEREYDA (both by Azrek’s son Ahmar).

Wilfrid Blunt’s famous 1897 memorandum ranked the breeding influence of the foundation mares imported from the desert. It treated the BASILISK line well:

“the strains which have hithero proved themselves the best are 1. Rodania’s 2. Dajania’s through Nefisa 3. and 4. Meshura’s and Basilisk’s…”

The Blunts seem to have regarded MESHURA and BASILISK as of the same line, since they were both of the Seglawieh Jedranieh strain of Ibn ed Derri.

The 1917 Crabbet catalogue, prepared about a year before Lady Anne Blunt’s death, lists the mares BUKRA and BEREYDA with their daughters *BATTLA and *BARAZA as representing the BASILISK family. At that time BUKRA’s son *BERK was one of Lady Anne Blunt’s senior sires, and the 1917 catalog lists eleven of his get, including *RAMIM, SAFARJAL and RYTHMA. Among the 1917 foals was to be RISSLA, the most famous of all the *BERK daughters.

BASILISK was a small mare, standing 14.1 hands. Lady Anne Blunt described her as having “wiry legs… not large below the knee”and a “good head and small muzzle.” Lady Anne Blunt commented that BASILISK had “something of the compact wiriness of a wild animal.” BASILISK was likely fine-skinned; through her coat were visible some patches of pink skin. Grey horses with fine skin frequently exhibit some loss of pigment. Small as she was, Michael Bowling has noted that BASILISK “seems to have bred still smaller, since BOZRA and BUSHRA were both noted as standing 14 hands even” (see CMK Record V/3). In its early generations, the BASILISK family seems to have produced an abundance of pretty, delicate-looking “deserty” little grey mares which very often turned flea-bitten as they aged. According to notes on the back of a Maynesboro photo of *BATTLA (Razaz x Bukra), published in the October 1972 Arabian Horse News, at the age of five years she stood 14.2 and weighed only 850 lbs.

Two people, both of whom have attracted not insignificant followings, have presented alternate views of BASILISK. Carl Raswan printed a photo of BASILISK on p. 80 of his book, The Arab and his Horse. He describes BASILISK as a coarse mare with an ugly head, and states that she had Syrian blood. He seems to have based his description on the photograph alone. A far clearer reproduction of the same photograph appears between pages 104 and 105 of Archer et al. In the photograph, BASILISK exhibits the fine bone and small muzzle Lady Anne Blunt described.

The entry in the Raswan Index for BAHRAM, a horse with two crosses to BASILISK (one in tail-female), touts him as “[one of] the last true and outstanding CLASSIC TYPE Arabians of the old Lady Anne Blunt, ‘ALI PASHA SHARIF and DESERT ARABIAN breeding.” However, BASILISK’s own entry in the Index says that she, like TAMARISK and PURPLE STOCK, was “another one of the early SYRIAN BLUNT importations (which were improved in later years with the incomparable ‘ALI PASHA SHARIF blood).” Among these Ali Pasha horses was WAZIR, sire of MAKBULA GSB, MERZUK, *SHAHWAN, and SOBHA. WAZIR’s head, wrote Lady Anne Blunt, “in shape reminded me of… Basilisk.”

Jane Ott has written that BASILISK possessed and handed on “extra bone and substance,” that “Basilisk type” horses are “robust” and “larger, bigger boned, and more substantial” than some other lines of Arabian breeding. No one can deny that Crabbet bloodlines have on occasion produced animals matching Miss Ott’s description. That someone should trace the origin of these characteristics to the fine boned 14 and 14.1 hand BASILISK mares is rather startling. Crabbet’s “enormous Rijm” topped 15.3 hands and would have towered over “little Bozra” and her compact, wiry dam. The NEFISA family bred a series of horses in excess of 15 hands. Hanstead’s RIFFAL (Naufal x Razina), of pure Blunt breeding, grew to stand over 16 hands without a drop of BASILISK blood.

Miss Ott states that *BERK “in spite of his too-slender legs and body… transmitted [the] extra bone and substance of his third dam as faithfully as any of her other progeny.” A Maynesboro photo of *BERK’s daughter *RAMIM (published with that of *BATTLA) had notes on the back stating *RAMIM’s height at age five years to be 14.1 hands and her weight 825 lbs, not a large horse by anyone’s standards. Mr. Covey writing in Archer et al. described *BERK’s daughter RISSLA as having “a lovely head and refined body,” and in his booklet Crabbet Arabians:

“Beautiful head with fine muzzle…a rather delicate mare and had to be brought in earlier than the other mares in the autumn.”

Photographs of RISSLA show a fine boned mare with the appearance of fine skin as well. If some lines of Blunt breeding are capable of producing “larger, bigger boned, and more substantial” Arabians it is far more likely due to the influence of horses like RIJM and NEFISA than BASILISK and BOZRA.