Eclipse by Nicholas Clee

Nicholas Clee introduces his book: Eclipse – all about our favourite racehorse!

This website is not the only place where you will find tribute paid to Eclipse, the great 18th-century Thoroughbred. Sandown Park stages the Coral Eclipse Stakes, one of the most important races in the English Flat racing calendar. In America, the Oscars of the racing world are called the Eclipse Awards. There is an American equestrian publisher called Eclipse Publications. The Royal Veterinary College in Hertfordshire has an Eclipse building. Tony Morris, Britain’s foremost bloodstock expert, has written: “If the question posed were to name the most famous Thoroughbred in history, only someone from another planet could fail to nominate Eclipse.”

Why is Eclipse (1764–1789) so venerated?

The first reason is his supreme ability. Racing in 1769 and 1770, Eclipse was almost certainly the greatest Thoroughbred seen to that time, his only serious rival to the accolade being Flying Childers (1715–1741). He won all his 18 races with ease, defeating the best horses of the day without ever raising a sweat. “He was never beaten, never had a whip flourished over him, or felt the tickling of a spur, or was ever, for a moment, distressed by the speed of a competitor,” an early historian wrote.

Then there is Eclipse’s unparalleled influence. All contemporary Thoroughbreds are descended from him; and, because of inbreeding, they have him in their pedigrees many times over – indeed, many thousands of times over. It is estimated that 95% of Thoroughbreds descend from his male line. In other words, if you go back from the 2008 Derby winner New Approach, for example, to his father, and to his father’s father, and so on back some 20 generations, you arrive at Eclipse; and you would arrive at the same destination if you examined the pedigrees of most contemporary racers.

His influence spread beyond the horseracing world. When Eclipse died, in 1789, a French veterinarian called Charles Vial de Sainbel anatomised him, producing a treatise that advanced Sai nbel’s ambition of setting up Britain’s first veterinary college. Eclipse’s skeleton resides at the Royal Veterinary College today, as does a statue of the horse and a painting of him by George Stubbs. Vets and scientists continue to study him, and the vets use models of his bones as props when they give lectures in schools and colleges.

All these are excellent reasons for remembering him. But what makes the Eclipse story so especially appealing for a writer is his unlikely owner. During the Georgian era, the best horses were almost all owned by royalty, or by people of title, or by landed gentry. Dennis O’Kelly boasted none of these qualifications. He was an Irish-born chancer and adventurer, who rose in the world largely through what may kindly be described as sharp practices. Even more scandalously, O’Kelly’s companion was Charlotte Hayes, the most celebrated brothel madam of the day. Charlotte’s sumptuous establishment in St James’s may have entertained many leading men of the Turf; that did not mean that they wanted to mingle with her, or with her roguish lover, socially.

A great horse, an outsider against the establishment, and scandalous sex: it is a story that has been enormous fun to write.

Read an extract from the book: 

Eclipse First

At Eclipse’s first race, the Noblemen and Gentlemen’s Plate at Epsom on 3rd May 1769, his future owner Dennis O’Kelly coined the most famous quotation in racing.

Dennis O’Kelly thought that there was more gambling to be done on the Noblemen and Gentlemen’s Plate, in spite of the apparently foregone conclusion of the contest, and returned to the betting post.

You get a flavour of the scene from a caricature by Thomas Rowlandson featuring Dennis as well as his later acquaintance the Prince of Wales. Mounted men crowded round. They roared, pointed and waved their arms, somehow in the confusion hoping to find layers or backers at their chosen prices. Dennis, who knew how to make himself heard, got the assembly’s attention when he put in his bid: he would name, he shouted in his rough Irish accent, the finishing positions of the horses in the second heat. He tempted three layers, who offered him even money, 5–4 and 6–4. Then he made his prediction: ‘Eclipse first, and the rest nowhere.’

It is the most famous quotation in racing, the line that summarizes Eclipse’s transcendent ability. It was not a simple piece of hyperbole, of the ‘the other horses won’t know which way he went’ or ‘they’ll have to send out a search party for the others’ kind: it had a precise meaning. Dennis was predicting that Eclipse would pass the post before any of his rivals had reached the distance marker; they would not receive placings from the judge, who would make the bare announcement ‘Eclipse first.’ Gower, Chance, Trial and Plume would be, in the context of the official result, ‘nowhere’.

Over at the Banstead start, Eclipse, Chance, Plume, Gower and Trial set off in the second heat. Once again Eclipse set a steady gallop, and after three miles, as the horses came into distant view, the layers may have been feeling confident: the field was tightly grouped. Then Eclipse began to draw clear. Reports say that Oakley [John Oakley, his jockey] was pulling back the reins ‘with all the strength [he] was master of’. Dennis, who needed Eclipse to put more than an eighth of a mile of daylight between himself and his rivals within the next mile, cannot have been pleased at these efforts at restraint. But he had no cause for concern. Eclipse continued to extend his lead. He raced through aisles of bellowing spectators, head low, his long stride devouring the ground. When he passed the post, his nearest pursuer was more than a distance away. The judge’s summary was terse: ‘Eclipse first!’.

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