Written by journalist and racing enthusiast Nicholas Clee, ECLIPSE is more than just the legend of the great paragon of horse racing; it is also a lively social history, a dual portrait of 18th century London. Through vivid descriptions and designated chapters for each major player in Eclipse’s story, Clee reveals a sophisticated and stately society ruled by bewigged aristocrats and politicians and also a bawdy era where gambling, prostitution, and sport reign supreme. Nicholas Clee was kind enough to entertain the burning questions we had surrounding the book and the famous Eclipse:
NC: This is the influence of my grandmother and of my great-grandmother, with whom I lived for several years before the age of 8. (My grandmother’s brother, who died young and whom I never knew, had been a racing tipster for a while.) We used to watch the racing on television: the first big race I remember was the 1964 Derby, won by a horse called Santa Claus. In 1966, when I was 9, I was at Kempton Park to witness the last race of Arkle, a legendary horse in British jump racing.
A book called The Home Run Horse by US racing journalist Glenye Cain alerted me to the Eclipse story. She gave a brief but colourful account of the great horse and his roguish owner. I showed the passage to my wife, saying, “I think there’s a book in this”; she agreed.
I’ve been lucky enough to write two books – my first was Don’t Sweat the Aubergine (Eggplant, you would say), about food and cooking – about my hobbies. They’re the two best jobs I’ve ever had.
OP: The information included in ECLIPSE is extensive: from Eclipse’s racing career to his legacy to racing terms, his owner’s family tree and more. Can you talk about what the research process was like? How long had you been conducting research? What was the most surprising thing you discovered?
NC:I often find, when I’ve completed a substantial piece of work, that I cannot properly remember how I did it. Perhaps it’s analogous to women’s reputed tendency to forget the pain of childbirth, except that researching Eclipse was pure pleasure. I do remember that I spent some six months – although I had a few other jobs to do as well – on the research before I wrote anything. I was in the British Library for most of the time, but I also, to my great good fortune, had the assistance of Tim Cox, who is the proprietor of the largest privately owned racing library in the world. Tim, very generously, uncovered valuable information concerning Eclipse’s pedigree and his sale as a yearling.
The most surprising thing: it was the discovery that certain events that have acquired the status of myth did in fact take place. The principal source of information about Dennis O’Kelly’s life is a scurrilous volume of “Genuine Memoirs”, published shortly after his death. One section of the book recalls how he met his lifelong companion, the brothel madam Charlotte Hayes, in the Fleet debtors’ prison. You don’t know whether to believe it. But there, in the Fleet records in the London Metropolitan Archives, are Dennis’s and Charlotte’s names. Finding them, on rolls of fragile paper, was a thrill: suddenly, these people were real, rather than characters in a story.
OP: ECLIPSE not only profiles the history of the iconic racehorse’s career, but also includes detailed accounts of the cast of characters involved in Eclipse’s life. What drew you to this story and this period in history?
NC: When I took my degree, I got my best mark in 18th-century literature. The period has always appealed: the Enlightenment ideas, the wit and elegance of the literature, the curious balance between order and anarchy in the social life.
What gave the Eclipse story its piquancy, I thought, was the juxtaposition of the supreme racehorse in what is known as the Sport of Kings with an owner from the wrong side of the tracks. Eclipse was bred by a royal prince; he has established the most aristocratic bloodline in horseracing. But his purchase was in part financed by prostitution, and the riches that he and his progeny generated at stud helped to secure a brothel madam’s comfortable retirement.
OP: Eclipse’s owner Dennis O’Kelly was an Irish adventurer, rogue, and gambler—an outsider to the Sport of Kings in every conceivable way—how did the political and moral climate of England at the time facilitate or hinder his rise to prominence?
NC: I suspect that the 18th century wasn’t so different from our own day in this respect. Dennis O’Kelly arrived in London with nothing, spent several years in a debtors’ prison, yet rose to be a considerable figure in society, with the future Prince Regent and King (George IV) among his acquaintances. But he found that certain doors remained closed: he was never, for example, accepted into membership of the Jockey Club, the association of the most distinguished figures in racing. Similar laws apply now. The wealth of Simon Cowell, for example, does not mean that the grandest families would accept him as one of their own.
OP: Throughout ECLIPSE, you paint a vivid portrait of 18th century England and the racing scene. How has the evolution of racing reflected a changing society then and now?
NC: Eclipse (1764-1789) lived just before the industrial revolution gathered pace. It was before the era of mass communication too.
Dennis O’Kelly anticipated the changes, setting up the most overtly commercial stud farm Britain had seen, and generating more publicity for Eclipse than any horse had received previously. Eclipse came along just at the right time, because the horses he sired tended to be speedier, capable of thriving at the shorter distances that racing introduced to stimulate its growth as a spectator sport.
I argue in the book that no other sport has particular, distinctive appeal for so many layers of society. On Derby Day, Epsom Downs attracts 100,000 people, ranging from the Queen in the Royal Box to the travellers on the open part of the course. They all have their own reasons to be there, centred on three-year-old Thoroughbreds racing over a mile and a half.
OP: You obviously have extensive knowledge of Eclipse’s winning races and the opponents he bested. In your opinion, if one of Eclipse's prominent descendants today were able to race him in his prime, would Eclipse still be standing in the winner’s circle?
NC: We all know that Usain Bolt would outrun Jesse Owens. Roger Federer at his peak would thrash Rod Laver at his peak. But does that make Usain Bolt a greater athlete than Jesse Owens, and Roger Federer a greater tennis player than Rod Laver? These are tricky questions.
Today’s top Thoroughbreds, and probably the weaker ones as well, would leave Eclipse trailing in the distance. But what you have to look at, I think, is the level of superiority a sporting figure establishes – provided that the superiority is over decent opposition. Eclipse beat all the best racehorses of his day, without breaking sweat. There was nothing to touch him. While other horses have gone through their careers unbeaten, no other has gained such an aura of supremacy. So, The Greatest? Yes.