Eclipse: The Greatest of his Time
“Eclipse’s provenance traces back to the Godolphin Arabian, one of the founding stallions of the thoroughbred breed itself. Eclipse remains unbeaten at track.” Valkin narrowed his eyes, searching his memory for details before continuing.
“In his last few years, Eclipse remained entirely unchallenged. He was retired to stud in 1771, due to the impossibility of shortening his odds.”
Excerpt From The King's Mistress.
In my newest novel, The King's Mistress, there's a lot of horse talk (I didn't say horseplay kids - that's a different subgenre entirely, and one I enjoy reading). The English Romany have been involved in the business of equine affairs for some hundreds of years. The hero of my novel is a king; he's also a well-known trainer of champion starters, and a fairly successful horse dealer.
It's he who manages to piece together one of the great mysteries surrounding my heroine at the start of the novel, through his knowledge regarding Eclipse, the greatest thoroughbred England ever saw. I often detail historical curiosities in this blog, and no few of them are Regency personalities. This is the first blog post dedicated to a Regency-era non-human. Eclipse's legacy is felt down the ages.
Born on April Fool's Day in 1764, Eclipse was an outstanding example of the thoroughbred breed. He ran his first race on May 3 1769, a £50 Plate for horses who had never won. Rumours had already spread and he began as the favourite at 4/1. The race was made up of three heats at four miles each. Eclipse won easily.
His second victory was also in May 1769, after which Dennis O'Kelly purchased the horse for a total sum of 1,750 guineas paid over in two parts over about ten months. The value of Eclipse nearly doubled between the two-staged buyout, due to the number of wins. John Oakley was his jockey, supposedly the only rider who managed Eclipse's temperamental manner and odd running style of holding his nose very close to the ground.
At that time, any horse more than 240 yards behind the lead was said to be nowhere. The phrase "Eclipse first, the rest nowhere" became as well-known as Eclipse himself when discussing anyone who outclassed their competition by miles.
Eclipse's catalogue of wins stands at 18, and includes 11 King's Plates. In ten of these plate meets, he carried around 12 stone (168 pounds) - the greatest amount of weight carried by any winning horse in England until 1840. His victories were in four mile races, pre-dating the common one mile classics we know today.
It's said that the stallion won without ever being fully extended in his gait. In total, he ran over 63 miles, walking 1,400 miles to meets across the country. At top speed, he was reported to be able to cover 83 feet per second, and his stride was 25 feet.
As Valkin explains above, our equine hero was retired to stud in 1771 where he built a successful career out of siring champions. His descendents include three Epsom Derby winners (Young Eclipse, Saltram and Serjeant).
Eclipse's racing career only lasted about 17 months, due to lack of competition as nobody was betting against him, and his odds grew too short. He stood at O'Kelly's Clay Hill Stud, near Epsom (Surrey), for a fee of 10 guineas which increased quickly to 25 and then to 50 guineas a mare. During 1788, he was relocated to Cannons Stud, Edgware (Middlesex). Overall, Eclipse sired 344 winners of more than £158,000.
The Death of Eclipse - and an Australian Connection:
Not quite a Regency hero, Eclipse died of colic on 27 February 1789, at the age of 24. While his skeleton is supposedly kept by the Royal Veterinary College, Hertfordshire, it's uncertain whether all the bones on display are truly from our horsey hero.
For example, his hooves were made into inkstands - but there appear to be at least five of them, so...?? This is the part I find most interesting though:
After his death, a necropsy was performed, and they found Eclipse had an abnormally large heart, weighing 14 pounds (6.4 kg). This is now known as the thoroughbred 'X Factor' - and it's supposedly found in winners. In particular, it's a feature of two famous champions - Secretariat and Phar Lap. Phar Lap is well know in Australia for running the Melbourne Cup three times, winning in 1930, the same year he took the Cox Plate and 14 other races. Both these racehorses trace their lineage back to - you guessed it: Eclipse, the grand stud stallion himself.
Find out more about my hero and heroine's connection to this wildly successful animal in The King's Mistress - available now.