Some thoroughbred horses were born to win and that was the case with Eclipse the horse who got his name when he was foaled on 1 April 1764, during the great eclipse that plunged the sun into darkness. Eclipse was bred by Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, and was the foal of Marske (who both won and lost a few races) and Spilletta (who raced once and lost). When Prince William died in 1765, the yearling, who was “a beautiful light chestnut, with a blaze down his face, and his off leg behind white quite up to the hock,” was sold at auction to William Wildman, a sheep dealer from Smithfield.
Wildman acquired Eclipse under unusual circumstances. He arrived after the auction had begun and protested, telling the auctioneer the auction had started before the advertised time. “The auctioneer remonstrated, Mr. Wildman was not to be appeased, and demanded that the lets already sold should be put up again.” This dispute created confusion, but it was finally agreed Wildman could pick any lot, which would then be transferred to him. “Eclipse was the only lot he had fixed upon, and the horse was transferred to him at the price of forty-six guineas [although newer references claim it was seventy-five guineas].”
At five years old, Wildman began to race Eclipse. Irishman Colonel Dennis O’Kelly amassed a fortune from the turf, gambling, and real estate, and, in 1769, he bought a 50 percent share of Eclipse from Wildman, and the other 50 percent the following year when Eclipse was six years old. It was also around this same time that O’Kelly used the following phrase when making a racing bet: “Eclipse first and the rest nowhere.” O’Kelly also offered “he would ‘place’ every horse” with Ecliplse. Fortunately, O’Kelly won all his bets because “all the horses … were distanced, and were therefore, in racing [terms] … ‘nowhere.'”
Eclipse’s remarkable wins may have been due to the fact that he was no ordinary horse. In fact, there were remarkable differences between Eclipse’s proportions and a standard horse’s proportions. Eclipse was taller in height by at least one-seventh more than what people believed he should measure. His neck was “one-third too long — a perpendicular line falling from the stifle of the horse should touch the toe; this line in Eclipse, touched the ground, at the distance of half a head before the toe.” But this was not the only irregularity.
“The distance from the elbow to the bend of the knee, should be the same as from the bend of the knee to the ground; [but] the former, in Eclipse, was two parts of a head longer than the latter.”
It was not just his amazing proportions that made Eclipse a hands-down winner. Eclipse was termed a “thick-winded horse, and [he] puffed and roared so as to be heard at a considerable distance.” When he died doctors also discovered that his heart weighed thirteen pounds, and it was his heart that enabled him to achieve the speed and strength necessary to win. One person who saw Eclipse race claimed:
“There was a certain coarseness about him. Eclipse … never had a whip flourished over him, or felt the rubbing of a spur — out-footing, out-striding, and out-lasting every horse that started against him.”
Under O’Kelly’s ownership, Eclipse became unbeatable, and he was considered far superior to any of his competitors. During his short seventeen month racing career — 3 May 1769 to 4 October 1770 — he won 18 races, including 11 King’s Plates. Unfortunately, his reputation for winning also resulted in his career being cut short. No one would race their horse against him. Eclipse then retired from racing and was used for stud. In his stud years he “produced the extra-ordinary number of three hundred and thirty-four winners, and these netted to their owners more than 160,000l., exclusive of plates and cups.”
After studding ended, Eclipse was sent into retirement and resided at Clay-hill Epsom from 1771 to 1778. He was then removed to Cannons, Middlesex, because he was lame. In fact, he was so lame that “he was obliged to be placed in a caravan on four wheels [purposely built for him], and this was the first instance in which a van was used for this purpose.” He was drawn by two horses and his old groom rode inside with him. Eclipse died the following year on 26 February 1789 from colic. He was twenty-four years old at the time. Similar to royal funerals, O’Kelly honored this king of horses by serving cakes and ale to mourners.
Although Eclipse died, his amazing legacy has survived. Moreover, he changed horse racing history forever. Eclipse’s descendants include Barbaro, Secretariat, and all but three of the Kentucky Derby winners during the last fifty years. There are also several well-known things named for Eclipse. One is the American Thoroughbred horse-racing award called the Eclipse Awards. Another is the Eclipse Stakes, a United Kingdom race for 3-year-old horses that is held annually in July at Sandown Park in Esher, Surrey, England. Lastly, there is an American compact sports car that carries his name. It is the Mitsubishi Eclipse.
- Every Body’s Album, Vol. 1, 1836
- Sidney, Samuel, The Book of the Horse, 1893
- The Edinburgh Magazine, or Literary Miscellany, 1788
- “The Horse Eclipse,” in Durham County Advertiser, 7 Dec 1860
- Walsh, John Henry, The Horse, in the Stable and the Field, 1893
- Youatt, William, The Horse, 1874