Geneticists these days are coming round to the Judaeo-Christian idea that we are all descended from the same common female ancestor. In horseracing it’s the male-line that counts – and it is a matter of historical fact that every contemporary thoroughbred on the planet descends from one of three horses imported to England from the east in the early 18th Century and then crossed with English mares.
The legacy of Eclipse – great grandson of one of those horses, the Darley Arabian – is even more astonishing. Born in 1764, he was unbeaten in a brief but glorious turf career, before being put to stud in 1771. Over the next seven years he sired roughly 930 colts and fillies, 344 of which were winners on the racecourse. St Simon, born a century later, had 81 instances of Eclipse in his pedigree, a figure that would increase exponentially in succeeding generations thanks, in part, to St Simon’s own success as a sire. Ninety-five per cent of horses racing today are Eclipse’s male-line descendants.
Nicholas Clee’s book is a good primer for anyone with a passing interest in the breeding of race horses and the genesis of racing as we know it, but it’s also a fascinating study of Georgian society in all its pomp and carnality. Eclipse was feted by royalty and painted by the great George Stubbs, yet more perhaps than any other sphere of life, racing in the 18th Century was cross-fertilised by all social strata, a truth demonstrated by the fact that Eclipse was acquired from a middle class meat salesman by Dennis O’Kelly, the uneducated son of an Irish smallholder.
On arriving in London in 1725, the young O’Kelly, an inveterate gambler and womaniser, found work as a “chairman” – carrying the front end of a sedan chair. Later, in a debtors’ jail, he met Charlotte Hayes, whom he subsequently helped rise to become the aristocracy’s most celebrated brothel-keeper. She a madam, he a racing magnate, Clee observes they were “at the summits of two of the most important leisure industries in Britain.”
The author sifts through myth and half-truth surrounding these two larger-than-life characters and indeed the horse itself. The detail of their era and milieu is at times grotesque – one Lord, it is recorded, once successfully bet that he could find a man who would eat a whole cat live – but the narrative itself is never less than compelling.
This article appeared in the Sunday Herald