Let’s begin with the obvious – 1764 is a long time ago. We were still fighting the French in that period of our history. It was only seventy years hence from the Battle of the Boyne. Eighteen years since Culloden and Bonnie Prince Charlie humming ‘o’er the sea to Skye’ as he fled for his life in a rowboat dressed as a chamber maid. It is so long ago that racing was in its infancy and the form book was nothing more than a pencil sketch.
Not that we would recognise what then was considered to be horse racing and if it had not changed drastically I.T.V. would be able today to insert ad-breaks during the actual races. 4-mile heats across the flat would not get people switching on their televisions or flocking to Newmarket or Epsom, I suggest. Not that the likes of you or I would be invited to take an interest. Horse racing in the 1700’s, as with the hunting of deer, was a sport for royalty and the idle aristocracy.
In the early days of our sport, when Stubbs made a good living painting the ‘racers’ of the aristocracy, there was no such mantra as ‘equine welfare is of paramount importance’. Life in those days was tough on horses. Match races could often be ‘best of three’. Or even five. The races run over 4-miles. Open races would be heats, again over 4-miles, with only half hour intervals between each heat.
One of the leading riders of the day, Sam Chiffney, described the training routine of horses as ‘ignorant cruelty’. He was specifically referring to what was called ‘the sweating exercise’, a physically demanding routine that would be referred to in our more enlightened times as interval training with the horse clothed in a heavy rug that involved hard gallops up hills followed by a walk followed by another gallop and so on until the horse could do no more. In his memoir Chiffney wrote: ‘It so effects the horse that he keeps breaking out in fresh sweats, that it pours from him when scraping, as if water had been thrown at him. Nature cannot bear this.’
I dare say the aristocratic horse owner might look critically at his horse and seeing an ounce of flesh remaining would suggest ‘a good sweat would be the making of him’. One wonders how many horses were rendered fit only for the knackerman by such ‘ignorant cruelties’?
It is in this era that ‘the horse that changed racing’ lived, raced and became a progenitor of great influence.
Eclipse won all of his eighteen races, though it has to be said in eight he walked over, though in distance he ran 62-miles and beat in total 40 competitors. That he was the best of his day is irrefutable. In eight races he scared off all opposition. The expression ‘Eclipse first, the rest nowhere’ is indication of the ridiculous distances he finished in front of his rivals. It is also where the term ‘distance’ hails, as any horse considered ‘distanced’ was ordered to be pulled up by the distance judge. But it must be remembered that there was no Derby or classic races in the time of Eclipse. He might have been beating hunters with a touch of speed about them for all we know. The term ‘thoroughbred’ had not even been termed for the racehorse. In deed even the term racehorse was probably not known. Horses raced by their owners were thoughts of as ‘racers’ and were used to exercise the gambling habits of the aristocracy. Eclipse could only defeat what was put in front of him and no doubt he was the first great ‘racer’ and his reputation gave him a head start when sent to stud with all the top breeders, not that there were many, sending their best or favourite mares to him.
Where I take issue with the legend that is Eclipse is with the claim, the justifiable claim, I must admit, that in the male line of most great horses from Desert Orchid, Arkle and even all but a small number of recent Derby winners, the name Eclipse, if twenty generations back, will be found. My dispute is that go back one more generation and there is the name of Marske, the sire of Eclipse, followed by Bartlett’s Childers and then the Darley Arabian. Who is to say that the supreme D.N.A. did not originate with one of the male line that came before Eclipse? And that Eclipse was the first to benefit?
If Eclipse raced during the infancy of the sport, Marske was at its conception, with the descendants of the Darley Arabian more likely to be used as chargers on the battlefield as bet on for fortunes in match races across the heath.
In his book ‘Eclipse’, Nicholas Clee assures the reader that Eclipse changed racing. I doubt if he did. Who can say that if he was born a hundred years later whether he would have possessed the speed to win a Derby or even the Ascot Gold Cup? I suspect the majority of the forty horses who lined up against him during his racing career if also born a hundred years later would not be flat racers but jumping horses.
As a social commentary Clee’s book is excellent. But it is more a study of the rogue that owned Eclipse and the social elite who wanted as little to do with him as could be managed given his influence on the sport, as it is about the horse. This is mainly due, I suspect, to so much of what is known about Eclipse being more legend than recorded fact. But then that is what Eclipse has become, a legend of the Turf.
What is known is that he was born in 1764.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.