In Memory of a Horse: “Eclipse First, The Rest Nowhere”

By Robert Chambers

The following text is an excerpt from the entry for February 28th from Robert Chambers’ Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, including Anecdote, Blog, and History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character. This book was first published in 1864 with additional editions published later. It is now in the public domain. Amos Staff has added images, links, and notes.

Illustration of Eclipse based on a painting by George Stubbs. The horse was well-knows to be a chestnut color with a white blaze on its nose and a white stocking on its rear leg. From “New Book of the Horse” by Charles Richardson. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

On the 28th of February 1789, died at Canons [1], in Middlesex, the celebrated horse Eclipse [2], at the advanced age of twenty-five. The animal had received his name from being born during an eclipse [3], and it became curiously significant and appropriate when, in mature life, he was found to surpass all contemporary horses in speed. [4] He was bred by the Duke of Cumberland, younger brother of George III, [5] and afterwards became the property of Dennis O’Kelly, Esquire, a gentleman of large fortune, who died in December 1787, bequeathing this favourite horse and another, along with all his brood mares, to his brother Philip [6], in whose possession the subject of this memoir came to his end. For many years, Eclipse lived in retirement from the turf, but in another way a source of large income to his master at Clay Hill, near Epsom, whither many curious strangers resorted to see him [7] They used to learn with surprise, —for the practice was not common then, as it is now, that the life of Eclipse was insured for some thousands of pounds. [8] When, after the death of Dennis O’Kelly, it became necessary to remove Eclipse to Canons, the poor beast was so worn out that a carriage had to be constructed to carry him. The secret of his immense success in racing was revealed after death in the unusual size of his heart, which weighed thirteen pounds [9].

Illustration of the skeleton of Eclipse. 18th-19th century. (Image: Wikimedia Commons/The Wellcome Trust
The skeleton of Eclipse is still held by the Royal Veterinary College. It has been exhibited in the past as part of a George Stubbs art exhibit. It’s said that his hooves became inkstands. (Poor Eclipse). (Image: Daily Mail)


1) Canons (also “Cannons”) was located in the village of Little Stanmore. It was demolished in 1747. A look at its life can be seen in Country Life.

2) Eclipse (1 April 1764- 28 February 1789) has a Wikipedia page, because of course he does. It’s exhaustive and lists his illustrious progeny as well as charts of his wins

3) Solar eclipse 1 April 1764.

4) He was said to have covered 83 feet per second and 25 feet per stride (Whyte, James Christie: “History of the British Turf…”). For comparison, Man O’ War (named by Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and the AP as the “best American racehorse of the 20th century”) had a stride length of 28 feet. The average stride length for any racehorse is 20 feet per stride. Most racehorses average 130-140 strides per minute. (See below in Links: “How Fast” and “The Stride”).

5) Prince William, Duke of Cumberland (15 April 1721 – 31 October 1765) was not the younger brother of King George III. The Duke was the third son of King George II, making him the uncle of George III, who was the son of Cumberland’s elder brother, Frederick.

6) Philip managed his brother’s stables at Clay Hill and also inherited Canons (Cannons) after his brother’s death.

7) It’s uncertain how much money tourists paid to see the horse but, outside of his racing earnings, Eclipse’s stud fees earned about 25,000 guineas (approximately 5,331,122.58 US in 2023 dollars).

8) It’s more common now to insure a thoroughbred. As for money, 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah was estimated to be insured for 20-30 million dollars. Interestingly, many to most insured horses are covered by syndicates of (up to dozens of) insurance companies as few will accept risk of more than 2.5 to 5 million per horse. (See “Protecting a Legacy” in Links)

Special Note: American Pharoah deserved to have his name spelled correctly, damn it. The hell, owner, what the hell.

9) It is now believed his heart weighed 14 pounds. The size of his heart has helped contribute to the “X Factor Theory” in racehorse biology.

Links and Resources

”Colonel Dennis O’Kelly’s Racing Establishment on Clay Hill Epsom and its Connection to West Hill House.” Epsom and Ewell History Explorer.

Eclipse.” Thoroughbred Heritage Portraits.

Historical Conversion of Currency

How Fast Does a Racehorse Run?” Horse Racing Nation.

”O’Kelly, Denis (Count)”. Dictionary of Irish Biography.

Rogers, Byron. “The Stride of a Champion: How does American Pharoah compare to Secretariat.”

Skeleton of Eclipse…” The Daily Mail, UK.

Voss, Natalie. “Protecting a Legacy: Insurance Costs Behind a Triple Crown Winner.” Paulick Report.

Detail of a painting by George Stubbs (1724-1806). Eclipse at Newmarket with Groom and a Jockey”. Ca. 1766. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

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