The most significant event in Kentucky over the coming week (Aug. 21) is the full solar eclipse, and the Bluegrass State is dead-center for viewing a total eclipse of the sun. The Bluegrass, more than most portions of the Earth, should be eclipse conscious because the pattern and character of the Thoroughbred today is significantly shaped by a single horse named after a similar event 253 years ago.
The great English racehorse and sire Eclipse (by Marske x Spilletta, by Regulus) was foaled during the great English eclipse of 1764. That event was memorialized in the unbeaten racehorse’s name.
Born April 1 of 1764, Eclipse was bred by the Duke of Cumberland (Prince William Augustus) and was foaled at Cranbourne Lodge in England. The future racing star did not start for his breeder, however, because the Duke died the following year when Eclipse was a yearling, and the chestnut colt was sold to a livestock dealer named William Wildman for 75 guineas.
Wildman brought the handsome chestnut to the races as a 5-year-old, a circumstance virtually outlawed today but relatively commonplace 200 years ago when races were much longer. Eclipse’s debut was in a race over four miles, best two of three heats. Eclipse won handily and after winning his second race, this time at two-mile heats, Dennis O’Kelly purchased half the horse for 650 guineas.
Eclipse continued to win races; all comers and distances were the same to him. In an era long before airplanes, horses typically walked to their own races, and Eclipse is estimated to have walked around 1,400 miles to races across England.
The big chestnut horse won them all.
He made 18 starts in two years, at distances from two to four miles, typically in heats. Eclipse never had to race the ultimate number of heats because he never lost one, and such was his dominance that he walked over – no opposition available to oppose him – eight times among the 18.
O’Kelly had purchased the remaining 50 percent of the horse for 1,100 guineas in April 1770, and after his 6-year-old season, Eclipse was retired because the difficulty in finding competition for him was too great.
In 1771, O’Kelly stood Eclipse at his Side Hill Stud near Epsom, and the horse became an immediate success at stud. His fee rose eventually rose as high as 50 guineas, and Eclipse moved to Cannons Stud in 1788 at age 24.
On 27 February the next year, Eclipse died from colic. He was 25.
At stud, Eclipse sired 344 winners, including three winners of the English Derby: Young Eclipse (1788), Saltram (1780), and Sergeant (1781). Eclipse’s most important sons at stud over the long term proved to be his second-crop son Pot-8-Os and fourth-crop son King Fergus.
Pot-8-Os is the male-line ancestor of Bend Or, Phalaris, Nearco, and a domineering portion of the breed. King Fergus proved to be the male-line ancestor of Galopin and his great son St. Simon, which are represented in more contemporary pedigrees through Ribot and Princequillo.
Derby winner Saltram sired some good horses in England and then was exported to Virginia at age 22. The stallion sired the dam of the important American racer Timoleon, who sired the great four-mile heat racer Boston, winner in 40 of 45 races and later the sire of Lexington, the greatest American sire of the 19th century.
As a result of these and other Thoroughbreds of enduring importance to the breed, Eclipse came to be regarded as one of the three most important Thoroughbred sire lines: those of Herod, Matchem, and Eclipse.
Eclipse’s influence on the breed spread far and wide, and the stallion’s male line has become the predominant male line in the breed, representing something in the neighborhood of 95 percent of modern Thoroughbreds. He is in the pedigree of every Thoroughbred I can find, although it is just possible that somewhere a Thoroughbred exists without a cross of the great chestnut who was named after the great astronomical event more than 250 years ago.
Since the Northern Hemisphere breeding season of 2017 is well past, however, there will be no Kentucky foal born on Aug. 21 with a destiny written in the stars.