Thursday, October 7, 2010

A stellar character

A stellar character

By Stephen Dwyer

If you follow the concept of star signs and the zodiac, you may know that those born on April 1st are born under the sign of Aries. This is the first sign of the zodiac, Aries individuals are typically strong characters, they display flashes of arrogance, are full of energy and cannot finish what they started quickly enough. Fittingly enough, these are exactly the qualities of many champion racehorses.

On April 1st 1764, a rare cosmic event occurred. It was an annular eclipse; this is where the Sun and Moon are exactly in line, the Sun appearing as a very bright ring, or annulus, surrounding the outline of the Moon. During this eclipse, a foal was born (most likely at the Cranborne Lodge Stud of his breeder, H.R.H. William, the Duke of Cumberland). The foal, suitably named Eclipse, was sired by Markse, winner of the Jockey Club Plate at Newmarket. Eclipse’s dam, Spiletta was sired in turn by the undefeated Regulus, out of the Godolphin Arabian.

Eclipse was sold as a yearling for the sum of 75 Guineas to a sheep dealer. Displaying an unruly and difficult temperament, Eclipse came very close to being gelded but instead he was disciplined through hard work-rides and was allowed to develop into a tough, resilient horse. Eclipse was a robust chestnut colt, he stood, unusually, an inch higher in the hind quarters than the withers. His hind leg was snow white from the knee down and at full stretch was just over 16 hands high. At the age of five, Eclipse won a £50 plate race at Epsom over four miles. His running style was unique; he ran with his head bowed low, his nose close to the ground.

Following his initial win, Eclipse quickly racked up more valuable races including a two King’s Plates as well as two walkovers in Winchester and Salisbury, having scared away the competitors. At the end of his first season, he had a string of nine victories in a row and was put away, unbeaten. Eclipse started his next year with a success in a match race against Bucephalus at Newmarket. He then claimed the Newmarket King’s Plate and a number of subsequent walkovers before winning two valuable races at Newmarket in successive days.

Through lack of competition and a healthy prize purse, Eclipse was retired a champion, he ran 18 times, winning with ease every single time. In the list of undefeated thoroughbred champions, he ranks third behind Peppers Pride (19 wins) and the unmatchable Kincsem (54 wins). Modern-day wonder mare, Zenyatta is creeping up on Eclipse; one more victory from her will see the wonder mare tie up third spot. During the reign of Eclipse, it is said he raced a total of 63 miles and walked an incredible 1,400 miles to race meetings all across England.

Standing at Clay Hill Stud near Epsom, a stud fee of 10 guineas quickly rose to 50. His proficiency as a quality stallion was astonishing. He became one of the leading sires in an era renowned for leading sires. Directly siring 344 winners including Derby winners Young Eclipse, Saltram, Volunteer, and Sergeant, he also sired Pot-8-os, King Fergus, Dungannon, Alexander, Don Quixote, and Pegasus. The lines of Pot-8-os and King Fergus survive to this day. Such was the shadow case by Eclipse that it is believed that among all living thoroughbreds, at least 95% can trace their direct tail-male line back to him.

In 1879, at the age of 24, Eclipse died following a bout of colic. His heart was found to be abnormally large and his skeleton now resides at Britain’s Royal Veterinary College. The ten furlong Coral-Eclipse Group 1 stakes at Sandown Park was named in his honour in 1886; it was the richest race in Britain at the time, surpassing even the Derby. A host of brilliant horses including Mill Reef, Sadler’s Wells, Daylami, Giant’s Causeway, Hawk Wing and Sea The Stars have all claimed the race at the Esher course. In France there is a 6 furlong Group 3 race, the Prix Eclipse and in the USA, the equivalent of the Cartier Racing Awards, the American thoroughbred horse racing awards are called the Eclipse Awards.

Eclipse was truly remarkable, steeped with a charismatic beginning; he remained a popular character throughout his life. In astrological terms, eclipses symbolise the end of old times and the start of new beginnings, the eclipse of 1764 brought equine perfection and a new age of the horse.

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