Magazine article The Spectator

Eclipsing All Rivals

Magazine article The Spectator

Eclipsing All Rivals

Article excerpt

The turf

Forget Daley Thompson, Carl Lewis, Steve Redgrave or any other human specimen of the bravest and the best you care to offer. When it comes to sheer quality there is a horse who outstrips them all and whose memory will last longer. Foaled on Sunday, 1 April 1764 at a stud in Windsor Great Park on the day of an annular eclipse, by Marske out of Spilletta, was a colt who was unsurprisingly then named Eclipse. The chestnut with a white sock on his off hind leg grew to be over 15 hands, a considerable size in those days, and he proved to be the finest racehorse ever seen. He was unbeaten in 18 races, although eight of them were walkovers because no opponents could be found rash enough to take him on. As one contemporary writer put it, Eclipse was `never beaten, never had a whip flourished over him or felt the tickling of a spur or was ever for a moment distressed ... outfooting, outstriding and outlasting every horse which started against him'.

Anybody who has ever thrilled to the sight of one racehorse pitched against another, legs pounding, neck outstretched, nostrils flaring has buried somewhere in their subconscious the expression `Eclipse first, the rest nowhere' and at last, for me, an elegant new book from the painstaking racing historian Michael Church has put the quotation in context. In the 18th century, horses rarely ran before the age of four but they then took each other on in heats run over two or four miles.

Owned originally by the meat wholesaler William Wildman, Eclipse ran in a dawn trial on Epsom training grounds. The touts missed the trial, which he won with ease, but were told by an old lady she was sure the pursuing animal `would never-catch the white-legged horse if he ran to the world's end'. When he was entered in the Noblemen and Gentleman's Plate on the Epsom course in May 1769 Eclipse therefore started long odds on at 1-4. His jockey (one Jack Oakley, for whom I will in due course hopefully search the family tree) sat quietly and simply let him draw away from the field of Gower, Chance, Tryal and Plume. It was then that Colonel Denis O'Kelly, an Irish adventurer who had started life as a sedan-chair carrier and billiards marker and later become Lieutenant-Colonel of the Middlesex Militia, made large bets at 6-4 and evens that he could place the horses for the second heat in the correct order. When asked for the order he replied: `Eclipse first, the rest nowhere', which meant in the terms understood at the time that Eclipse had to finish a 'distance', or 240 yards, ahead of the rest.

Although the horses were all grouped together at three miles Eclipse then went right away and won O'Kelly his bet. …

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