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Original Issue


The saga of the incomparable 18th century English race horse named Eclipse, who never was beaten or even extended, and sired sons as famous as himself

One of the most famous race horses of all times, Eclipse was foaled in England during an eclipse of the sun in 1764. The colt, who stood 15.2 hands, was not much for looks, but he had a proud heritage. It traced back directly to the Darley Arabian, one of the three founding sires of the thoroughbred race horse. (The others were the Byerly Turk and the Godolphin Barb.) Eclipse was bred by the Duke of Cumberland, second son of King George II, and when still a yearling was sold for about $400 to William Wildman, a prosperous meat salesman with a sporting turn. The colt early manifested such a nasty disposition it seemed probable that he would have to be gelded. Fortunately for the future of international horse racing and Dennis O'Kelly (who as Eclipse's later owner made over $100,000 in stud fees), Wildman refused to curb the horse's fiery spirit by this means. Instead he put Eclipse in the hands of a notoriously rough rider who worked the thoroughbred day and night. Even this rigorous treatment, however, had little effect. Eclipse ran like the wind and the harder he ran, the more the frisky thoroughbred seemed to enjoy himself.

Because of the grueling four-mile-heat system of racing, which meant an eight-to-12-mile run under saddle in a single afternoon, horses before 1776 did not race until they had reached at least five years of age. When Eclipse reached this age he started in his first race on May 3, 1769 at Epsom Downs.

This first turf appearance was the usual race of the best two out of three four-mile heats. One of the bettors, a wealthy Irishman named Dennis O'Kelly who had made a fortune gambling, watched the blaze-faced chestnut win the first heat handily. O'Kelly was so impressed with Eclipse's performance that he shrewdly bet he could name the order in which each horse would finish. Asked for his wager, he cried prophetically: "Eclipse first, the rest nowhere." The prediction was correct, and the phrase became famous. After Eclipse repeated his performance in his second race at Ascot, O'Kelly persuaded Wildman to sell him a half interest in the horse for about $3,250. By 1770 Wildman had foolishly signed away the remaining half interest to O'Kelly for another $5,500. So a horse who was responsible either directly, or through his get, for hundreds of millions of dollars changing hands was snapped up for a few thousand by a gambler with vision.

Eclipse raced only three seasons, winning all his 26 starts and 11 King's Plates. In 10 of the races he carried the unusually heavy load of 12 stone (168 pounds). He was never defeated or even extended, and he beat by at least 200 yards the best horses in England. In October 1771 he raced for the last time, as a 7-year-old, at Newmarket. After that, O'Kelly retired Eclipse to stud and English racing again became a competitive contest.

Eclipse was so famous in his day that the average Britisher knew him as well as he knew the king himself. His portrait was painted at least a dozen times (see one of them above). One artist painted him seven times, and one horse lover, Lord Roseberry, owned eight portraits of him well over a hundred years after the horse's death. Even the British Museum displayed an engraving of him on its sacrosanct walls. He died at the age of 25 in 1789, and the public scrambled to own and marvel at his remains. His skeleton was mounted and earnestly studied by scientists, who wrote profound treatises explaining the horse's ability to run. His heart was reverently weighed and found to be five pounds heavier than that of the average horse. His mane and tail were woven into a racing trophy (the Newmarket Challenge Whip) and one mounted hoof acquired by royalty. Even 109 years after Eclipse's death an-Englishman proudly left his heirs a cherished fragment of Eclipse's hide. The interest in the relics of Eclipse was so great that a brisk business sprang up in ersatz remains of the horse. At least six "undoubted" skeletons and nine "authentic" feet were foisted on a gullible and souvenir-seeking public. Dennis O'Kelly, who would have delighted in such a daring business enterprise, wasn't there to see it, for he had died of the gout a little more than a year earlier than his horse.

Today the legendary Eclipse is as well known as he was when O'Kelly owned him. He is remembered not only for his incomparable racing, but for the number of worthy descendants he left the turf world: Gallant Fox, Whirlaway, Assault, Citation and Nashua, among others familiar to American horse lovers. Eclipse and two other sires, Matchem and Herod (who carried on the lines of the Godolphin Barb and the Byerly Turk respectively), are responsible for every racing thoroughbred alive today. Eclipse's get won two out of three of the first century and a half of Epsom Derbies: such victories as Young Eclipse in 1781, Waxy in 1793, Whalebone in 1810, Blair Athol in 1864, Galopin in 1875. At this year's Kentucky Derby, Swaps became the 63rd descendant of Eclipse to win the 81-year-old American classic. Only 18 descendants of Matchem and Herod together have been winners in the U.S. derby. Eclipse's blood, transmitted through his famous sons, has proved to be the most valuable of any horse on record. The fractious chestnut eclipsed them all.