Eclipse – The Unbeatean Horse

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,”[1] was sold at auction to William Wildman, a sheep dealer from Smithfield.

Eclipse the horse

Eclipse. Public domain.

Wildman acquired Eclipse the horse 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.”[2] 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].”[2]

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, the same year that Napoleon Bonaparte was born, O’Kelly bought a 50 percent share in Eclipse from Wildman. The following year he purchased the other 50 percent when Eclipse was six years old. It was also around this same time that O’Kelly began using the following phrase when making a racing bet: “Eclipse first and the rest nowhere.”[3] O’Kelly also offered he would “place” every horse with Eclipse, and fortunately he won all his bets because “all the horses … were distanced, and were therefore, in racing [terms] … ‘nowhere.'”[4]

Cameo of Dennis O’Kelly. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Eclipse’s amazing 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. He 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.”[5] Yet this was not the horse’s 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.”[6]

An analysis of Eclipse’s geometrical proportions were also provided by Monsieur Vial de Saint Bell, Equerry to the King of France. He stated of Eclipse:

“The principal defects of conformation … which might have been imputed to Eclipse, consist first in his body, which was too thick. This fault was certainly less in his youth when he ran. Secondly, his shoulders were too fleshy, and consequently too heavy: but this fault was counterbalanced by the perfectly physical and mechanical conformation of his legs; his figure in general did not please the eye of the pretended connoisseurs, whose skill seldom or never goes beyond the surface of the skin; but no one is ignorant, that the most beautiful quality of a race-horse is the celerity of his gallop; consequently, that horse that gallops the fastest, ought to be reckoned the most beautiful, and serve as a model in the rules of proportion to all others; it is not the same in a menage-horse, whose conformations ought to be absolutely opposite; the principles of beauty ought then to be relative to the use a horse is destined to. … Eclipse, free of all weight, and gallopping at liberty with his greatest swiftness, could cover an extent of twenty-five feet of ground, at every complete action on the gallops … could run four miles, or nearly, in the space of six minutes and two seconds.”[7]

It was not just his amazing proportions that made Eclipse the horse a hands-down winner. He was termed a “thick-winded horse, and [he] puffed and roared so as to be heard at a considerable distance.”[8] 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:

“This paragon of running horses, as in his actions, so in his fame, stands proudly aloof from almost the possibility of competition. … He never in his life felt whip or spur, or even the control of the bit; and although no jockey could hold him against his will, neither of the two, who only had the honour of riding him, ever experienced the least difficulty in pulling him up at an ending post. Nor was there any difficult in training, at least after he had raced, although the most resolute and headstrong of horses.”[9]

Eclipse the horse - his skeleton

Eclipse’s skeleton. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Under O’Kelly’s ownership, Eclipse the horse became unbeatable and 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. He then retired from racing and was used for stud, during which time 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.”[10]

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.”[10] 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.

Eclipse the horse

The racehorse Eclipse. Public domain.

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.


  • [1] The Horse, 1834, p. 243.
  • [2] Every Body’s Album, Vol. 1, 1836, p. 188.
  • [3] Walsh, John Henry, The Horse, in the Stable and the Field, 1893, p. 69.
  • [4] Pamphlets on British Politics, 1856, p. 51.
  • [5] Monthly Magazine, or British Register, Volume 54, 1822, p. 104.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] “Anatomy, &c. of Eclipse,” in Chester Chronicle, 7 August 1789, p. 4.
  • [8] Youatt, William, The Horse, 1874, p. 71.
  • [9] “The Horse Eclipse,” in Durham County Advertiser, 7 Dec 1860, p. 3.
  • [10] Youatt, William, p. 71.

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