An excerpt from Steve Dennis’s wonderful book, A History of Horse Racing in 100 Objects, an ambitious work that spans the vast expanse of a global sport, condensing its heart and soul into a century of milestones connecting its ancient past and vibrant present .
Dem bones, dem bones. Visitors to the Royal Veterinary College in Hertfordshire can come face to face with the earthly remains of the remarkable Eclipse, as the clean bones of the nearly complete skeleton of one of the greatest horses in history are on display here.
When Eclipse died of colic in 1789, an autopsy was performed on him in an attempt to discover the reason for his superlative ability. It was discovered that he had a very large heart, which largely explained his athletic prowess, and then his bones were reassembled and put on display as a curiosity.
Later, his skeleton was periodically disassembled, transported across the country and reconstructed, with the consequence that some of the bones were lost along the way and replaced by suitable bones from other horses. An inspection of the skeleton also reveals that the hooves are missing.
Eclipse (born 1764) was a true freak of a horse. Born in the light and shadow of a solar eclipse – naming him was an easy task – he was a surly individual in a long white sock, prone to galloping with his head to the ground like a man searching for loose change in the street.
He did not start his career until he was five years old, which was not unusual for the time, but he was likely to make his debut after the news of his private trial became public. He retired undefeated and without extra time in 18 races, many of them in which no one was present, as his reputation and brilliance were such that few owners wanted his horses to start against him.
His name has resonated throughout the centuries, not least because of the phrase he unknowingly bequeathed to the language. His first race was the Noblemen and Gentlemen’s Plate at Epsom in May 1769, a four-mile heat race, and after Eclipse’s victory in the first heat, Irish gambler and lovable town rogue Dennis O’Kelly he bet that he could put the horses in the second heat in the correct order of arrival. He yelled ‘Eclipse first, and the rest nowhere’, and for that seemingly unlikely outcome he was given good odds.
Being ‘nowhere’ meant finishing more than 240 yards (a measure known as ‘distance’) behind the winner, and it was a very rare occurrence. But rarer still was a horse like Eclipse, and he got O’Kelly’s bets with room to spare, putting rivals away from him; O’Kelly later bought Eclipse with his profits. The words ‘so and so first, and the rest nowhere’ have entered common parlance as an illustration of total domination, even though those who use them have never heard of the racehorse.
When his career came to an end, mostly due to a lack of competition, Eclipse had great success as a stallion. His most influential son was Potoooooooo (the horse was supposed to be named Potatoes, but her semi-literate boyfriend phonetically scrawled his name on the barn door: Pot and Eight Os, and it stuck), who helped spread the fortune. .I mentioned the golden thread of bloodlines that led from Darley Arabian to Phalaris and then to the saturation of modern pedigree.
Immortality is assured within the pages of the record books, but a Turf model like Eclipse naturally has plenty of commemorations.
The Eclipse Stakes at Sandown Park is one of Britain’s biggest flat races of the season, and the annual Eclipse Awards in the US recognize champions of the sport in categories including the hugely prestigious Horse of the Year. And of course we can see the skeleton of him.
It may seem a bit ghoulish by modern sensibilities, but the late 18th century occupants were less fastidious, and it is certainly surprising to see this great equine celebrity in his display case.
Few other horses have been preserved in this way, though the skeletons of (correctly) Potoooooooo and the 1933 Derby winner and multiple champion stallion Hyperion are on display at the National Museum of Horse Racing.
So there’s Eclipse, on tiptoe, on the tips of the pastern bones, because her hooves are missing. They were removed sometime after the autopsy and turned into inkwells, slightly ghoulish keepsakes for racing fans.
However, as is often the case, corporate zeal took flight, with the result that there appear to be five inkwells of hooves attributed to Eclipse in circulation. No wonder, in that case, that he could run so fast.
• The history of horse racing in 100 objects by Steve Dennis is available here
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