Archive for February, 2024

The Life and Times of Eclipse – Part One

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Trained on Epsom Downs


Part One


On Wednesday, 3 May 1769, the third day of Epsom’s six-day meeting, Eclipse ran his first race in the Nobleman and Gentleman’s Plate. This, a typical competition for the time, was open to five and six-year-olds and run in four-mile heats. Between heats, 30 minutes would be allowed for the ‘rubbing down’ of horses and the Plate would be awarded to the winner of two heats. If the race needed three heats to decide and had three different winners, a further heat would be run. Any horse that was a distance (240 yards) behind a heat winner would be eliminated, the rules also stipulating, that any jockey who “shall or do, whip or lay hold of any rider, his horse, saddle or bridle”, would be regarded as being distanced.

Eclipse, then a five-year-old, carried 8st 7lb, while the six-year-olds carried 9st 3lb; the value to winner was £50. In opposition to Eclipse were two five-year-olds, Gower and Tryal and two six-year-olds, Chance and Plume.

Significantly, before Eclipse ran his first race, O’Kelly owned a house and stables situated on Epsom Racecourse between the future first mile and a half Derby start and the present one. And so, local news of Eclipse had preceded him, forcing his odds to a skimpy 1-4, although O’Kelly had previously made a large wager at a better price.

In the first heat, Jack Oakley, as planned, allowed Eclipse to go on as he pleased, sitting quietly in the saddle, while making no attempt to hold him up. Eclipse taking an early lead, then drew further away from the opposition.

Before the second heat Dennis O’Kelly, an Irish adventurer, made two large bets at 6-4 and Evens, that he could forecast the correct order of all five runners. To the surprise of the layers, when asked for the order he replied “Eclipse first, the rest nowhere”, implying, Eclipse had to finish a distance (240 yards) ahead of all his rivals.

The second heat off and running, all five runners were grouped closely together at the three-mile post, then Oakley let Eclipse draw away to fulfil what has become a famous racing prophecy.

The birth of Eclipse was entirely in keeping with the legend he was to become.

Foaled at noon on Sunday, 1 April, 1764, in a paddock near Cranbourne Tower in Windsor Great Park, his birth coincided with an annular eclipse – an eclipse of the sun in which the moon, seen projected on the solar disc, leaves a golden ring of light visable. Writers of the day called it “The Great Eclipse”.

The breeder of Eclipse was William, Duke of Cumberland (1721-65), the second surviving son of George II. A professional soldier, Cumberland was a Major-General at the age of 22 and, in the company of his father, was seriously wounded when defeating the French at Dettingen in Bavaria, this the last battle where an English king was present.

In 1745, Cumberland was promoted to Captain­General of the allied army in Flanders and, the following year, defeated “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” the Young Pretender, at Culloden Moor, Inverness. So severe was his crushing of the Stuart rebellion that he gained the nickname Butcher Cumberland. However, in 1757, when head of a Hanoverian army, he was defeated by the French at Hastenbeck, after which he resigned all his military commands.

Cumberland, a dedicated and ruthless soldier, now transferred his passion to the Turf. Already an early member of the Jockey Club and the only royal member (his colours were all purple), he took up the position of Ranger of Windsor Forest, where, from his Cumberland Lodge residence, he set up his Windsor Forest Stud.

Within seven years he had bred the two most influential racehorses in the history of thoroughbred breeding – Herod (b.c. 1758), the eight-time Champion Sire 1777-1784 and Eclipse.


The sire and dam of Eclipse were both in the ownership of the Duke of Cumberland at the time of their mating. Spilletta (b.f. 1749), was a good-looking daughter of the eight-time Champion Sire, Regulus and purchased by the Duke from Sir Robert Eden. Beaten in her only race at Newmarket in 1754, she was later sent to the Duke’s Stud. Altogether, she produced five foals before her death in 1776, incl. Proserpine (b.f. 1766) and Garrick (ch.c.1772) also by Marske.

Although just below top class, Marske won three times, his most notable victory coming in the Jockey Club Plate, when, as a four-year-old he beat Brilliant over Newmarket’s Round Course (3 miles, 6 furlongs and 93 yards). However, at Newmarket in 1756, when twice matched against the future Champion Sire, Snap, he was beaten both times.

Before the Duke’s death, Marske was considered of little value as a stallion, commanding only a half-guinea fee, and at the subsequent dispersal sale, he was sold to a Dorset farmer for a trifling sum. However, also attending the sale was William Wildman, a large-scale grazier and meat salesman at Leadenhall Market, who raced for a hobby, keeping a small stud at Mickleham in Surrey. On his arrival, he found that Eclipse had been sold for 70 guineas before the advertised time of the sale. His forthright objection caused the lot to be put up again and this time Wildman secured Eclipse for 75 guineas.

Mindful of the Dorset farmer after Eclipse’s sensational victory at Epsom, Wildman, paid him a visit, and on the exchange of £20, returned home with the sire of Eclipse. Thereafter, the success of Eclipse boosted Marske’s popularity and he went on to become Champion Sire in 1775 and 1776. Finally purchased by Lord Abingdon, he stood at his Rycot Stud in Oxfordshire, for the then enormous fee of 100 guineas. Marske died in July 1779, aged 29 years, having sired the winners of 352 races.

Mr Wildman, realising he had obtained a bargain, decided to allow Eclipse time to mature. Of some concern, however, was the horse’s temper, at one time so bad, that Wildman considered having him gelded. However, after due consideration, he sent him to George Elton (or Ellers), a ‘rough-rider’ near Epsom, who rode him about all day and occasionally throughout the night to quieten him down. Although the horse was never vicious, he always kept his fiery temper and, at this stage, Wildman’s first priority was to find a patient jockey. Jack Oakley fitted the bill and was engaged to ride Eclipse in almost all his races.


Part Two to follow shortly


For more history of Eclipse see Michael’s Books for Sale. 

To see Michael’s interviews go to the foot of About Michael