THE LEGACY OF ECLIPSE
The most coveted award in thoroughbred racing -The
Eclipse Award-Horse of the Year-started in the NTRA in 1972 and since that time
40 most memorable and honorable contenders of our generation have been under
consideration. Why is this award named 'Eclipse"? Most all-important events, stake races
and handicapped races are named for an important thoroughbred, personality or
even closely aligned with the sport.
Recorded history, legend and lore will provide the Legacy of Eclipse.
Eclipse, was an 18th century British thoroughbred
who lends his name and reputation to this most prestigious award. Why is this
particular 18th century horse honored today as the best of the best? After over
3 centuries of thoroughbred racing what makes Eclipse so esteemed? Why he is still so highly regarded? What
is his contribution to modern day thoroughbred racing?
Eclipse was foaled the day of a solar eclipse, on
April 1, 1764 at the Cranbourn Lodge in England. Eclipse was chestnut in color
with a thin white blaze on his face and a white hind leg. At maturity he stood
at 15.2 hands (compared to modern thoroughbred averaging 16 hands) and was not
a particularly handsome colt. An usual looking animal indeed, his legs were
average and his head quite disproportionate to his body. Adding the eerie
occurrence of the solar eclipse the day he was foaled added an air of suspicion,
mystery and intrigue to him. Popular artist of the day, George Stubbs, captured
the bizarre image of Eclipse in several of his works.
Eclipse was nearly gelded due to his
temperamental manner and vicious biting (gelding is still practiced as a means
of calming high-spirited horses). He was sold as a yearling to a local
businessman in Epsom, Richard Wildman, for 75 guineas. Wildman’s business was raising
sheep and or selling meat. Being a turf-racing enthusiast he began the colt's
rigorous training attempting to break his spirit. Eclipse, being of an
independent nature, blossomed under the intense training and 'being run into
the ground'. Eclipse became friskier
and more difficult to manage, but Wildman did not give up. Eclipse had great potential and from this
vigorous training built the stamina required for racing in the 18th century.
Eclipse began his racing career in 1769, at the age of 5. Contrary to today’s
racing careers beginning at 2, the accepted age of a thoroughbred’s embarkation
He was born to run and needed no encouragement.
His permanent rider, Jockey John Oakley never had to spur him on or use the
whip; Eclipse was a natural. His speed and endurance was speculated to be
the result of his odd running style: racing with his nose close to the ground.
This trait has never been scientifically verified and he may have run with his
head down in an effort to bite and unseat his jockey.
Horse racing in 18th century consisted of a
series of 4-mile heats (runs) always on turf, culminating in the thoroughbred
racing over 12 miles in a single day. Several years later the course distance
was reduced to 2 miles. Eclipse was unstoppable and undefeatable in his
career of 18 wins, running 63 miles.
The third owner, "Captain" Denis
O'Kelly, an Irishman of dubious reputation and hard drinking, coined the
popular British racing phrase 'Eclipse first and the rest nowhere’. Eclipse
dominated the field and left his brilliant competitors 'nowhere'. Eclipse
was known as a sure winner. His contemporaries could not win against him, and
their owners eventually did not enter their horses. His speed was so impressive
that many times Eclipse walked a ‘processional’ to the finish line. Perhaps never attaining his full
potential after a mere 17 months of easy wins and no competitors, the captain
had no choice but to retire Eclipse to stud.
He was to stand at O'Kelly Clay Hill near Epsom
and later at Cannon's Stud in Middlesex for 50 guineas a mare ($75.00). When the local stock of mares was
depleted, Eclipse was carted throughout the English countryside to be further
exploited as a stud. Eclipse is
credited with 325-400 ‘light fleshed and ‘easily trained’ offspring, many of
whom became champions.
Eclipse died, from colic on February 27, 1789 at
the age of 24. His body was dissected in an effort to determine the exceptional
internal physical capacities that gave him his outstanding abilities. His heart
was found to weigh about 14 pounds, which was almost 5 pounds heavier than any
other horse of his day. His lungs were also unusually large. Eclipse’s unusual
performance and appearance may perhaps be the result of his direct lineage to two
of the three Arabian stallions (Godolphin and Darley Arabian) imported to breed
with the British mares of that time. This is the bloodstock from which the
modern thoroughbreds have evolved.
Most of his skeleton was preserved, with the
exception of his hooves that were made into inkstands. The authenticity of this
fact is debated, as at least 5 gold encased inkstands are still in existence as
Eclipse’s hooves. The skeleton of the great Eclipse is on display at the
Royal Veterinary College. ‘Authentic’ skeletons can be found at 5 additional
locations throughout England.
In 1970 the Royal Veterinary College determined
that 85-95% of all contemporary thoroughbreds are descended from Eclipse. DNA from
a tooth later served to verify this fact.
Is the ‘story’ of Eclipse fact or fiction, legend
or lore, contrived and embellished? Regardless of the precise details, Eclipse has survived
history and his ancestry proven.
Surely The Legacy of Eclipse is the heritage of our thoroughbred heroes
of today and so he is immortalized by The Eclipse Award-Horse of the Year.
Written and Submitted BY:
Margaret J. Clemente