Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Noblemen and Gentlemen's Plate

Nicholas Clee at the Observer on Eclipse, the horse who served as progenitor of ninety-five percent of today's thoroughbreds:

Every horse that ran in the 2006 Derby was a male line descendant of Eclipse; so was every horse that ran in the French Derby; and every horse that ran in the Kentucky Derby. His influence is not confined to flat racing. Kauto Star, the favourite for the 2007 Cheltenham Gold Cup, is an Eclipse descendant. So were jumping greats Desert Orchid and Arkle.

Lack of patronage from the Jockey Club crowd, then, had no marginalising effect. Eclipse was already doing pretty well in [the owner] O'Kelly's lifetime, siring the winners of 344 races, including three early runnings of the Derby. But what really ensured his pre-eminence was that he got descendants - stallions 'get', 'sire' or 'throw' offspring - who themselves became hugely influential, establishing the most prevalent thoroughbred bloodlines. The Eclipse line continued mainly through two of his sons: King Fergus and a horse whose name anticipated the language of text messaging, Pot8os. A French-trained descendant of Pot8os, Gladiateur, came over to England in 1865 and won the 'Triple Crown' of 2,000 Guineas, Derby and St Leger, earning himself the nickname 'The Avenger of Waterloo'.

(A Shandean question: what is the significance of an eighteenth-century horse called Squirt? Is it some kind of a reflection on the means of his offspring's propagation, or his own?)

And here's how the story ends (I like tales about skeletons and museums and DNA, obviously, but my attention's also caught by the fact that my mother went to the North London Collegiate School, I must ask her if there was any strange historical horse-breeding paraphernalia around the place...):

By the time his sons were winning the Derby, Eclipse was starting to feel his age. When O'Kelly bought the Cannons country house and estate - now spelled Canons, and home to the North London Collegiate School for Girls - near Edgware, and transferred his stud there, Eclipse became the first horse in England to be transported by a horsebox. This prototype was a four-wheeled carriage drawn by two horses and containing Eclipse, his groom and refreshment for both of them.

O'Kelly lived only a year or so longer, falling victim to gout in 1787. He made his nephew Andrew his heir. As if to emphasise the exclusion of O'Kelly, the Jockey Club elected Andrew to membership shortly after his uncle's death. Eclipse died of colic on 25 February 1789.

Andrew O'Kelly asked Charles Vial de Sainbel, the inaugural professor at the Royal Veterinary College, to anatomise the horse. Sainbel published his findings in 1791 as Elements of Veterinary Art: Containing an Essay on the Proportions of the Celebrated Eclipse , asserting that Eclipse offered the perfect specimen of an equine athlete. The horse's heart weighed 14lb.

Parts of Eclipse's body ended up with the Jockey Club. A second Eclipse hoof belongs to the Queen. The horse's skeleton has had a curious afterlife. In the mid‑19th century it belonged to Bracy Clark, a historian of the horse and author of a treatise about Eclipse. Clark found, as most of us would, that a horse skeleton was awkward to keep at home: he shoved the limbs into two cupboards in his study, and piled the head and body on top. Just before his death, Clark sold the skeleton, for 100 guineas, to the New Veterinary College in Edinburgh.

Eleven years later, Eclipse's skeleton was on the move again, to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in Red Lion Square, London. In 1920, it crossed London to the Natural History Museum. On 15 February 1972, Dick Whitford reported in the Sporting Life : 'The turf's greatest horse lies forgotten in a museum basement.' The establishment of a National Horseracing Museum in Newmarket offered an opportunity to bring this neglect to an end. The skeleton travelled there for the opening by the Queen in April 1983.

It is now on display at the Royal Veterinary College, near Hatfield - although, at the moment, it lacks a head. That is in Cambridge, where scientists have succeeded in taking a sample of DNA from one of Eclipse's teeth as part of a project to unlock the 'lifecodes' of great thoroughbreds. The RVC has also set its Structure and Motion workgroup on to the horse, in a project to update Sainbel's work. More than 200 years after his death, Eclipse still fascinates.


  1. This is an interesting blog, however, I think that describing Brack Clark as one of the first English veterinary surgeons would better represent him. He was a prolific veterinary author and fell into the obssesion over Eclipse, because of his relationship with Charles Vial de Sain bel who dissected Eclipse and was the first prof. at the College.

  2. I'm greatly interested in life history of Bracy Clark, he was really genious! But I suffer from lack of information about him...
    HERODITUS, could you be so kind to lell more abot autobiography of Bracy Clark?
    Thanks a lot
    And sorry for my horrible english...