Any conversation about great race horses has to begin with Eclipse, the undefeated Thoroughbred who has set the standard for elite racing since the 18th century. The Group 1 Eclipse Stakes, France’s Prix Eclipse and the US Eclipse Award are all named in his honour. His dominance of the track led to the famous phrase “Eclipse first and the rest nowhere”.
He was foaled at the Cranbourne Lodge Stud during the solar eclipse of April 1, 1764, and was a grandson of the Godolphin Arabian, one of the three foundation studs (with the Byerly Turk and the Darley Arabian) for the English Thoroughbred. Today, 95% of Thoroughbreds trace their lineage back to Eclipse.
Recent studies by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) and University of Cambridge have tried to determine what made Eclipse such an unparalleled racehorse. His skeleton is on display at the Royal Veterinary College, so scientists have been able to study the exterior parts for centuries. The hooves are missing from the skeleton as they were re moved to make inkstands, but as there are five in existence there is some doubt as to their authenticity).
But DNA testing, with DNA from one of the horse’s molars, allows researchers to map the genomes of the great British racehorses–they also are using DNA from Hermit, a descendant of Eclipse and winner of the 1867 Derby. The RVC is working to determine the genetic traits that have come down through more than 30 generations of horses so they can understand what traits make the animals susceptible to certain diseases and how to avoid their breaking down during training. They’re also interested in the physics of the gallop–how do these animals at maximum speed with only one leg on the ground 805 of the time.
Eclipse, grandson of the Godolphin, was a small horse by modern standards–half an inch over 16 hands. He had a large and unfashionable head, and was chestnut, with a big blaze down to his nose and a sock to his hock on his right leg. He was notoriously high-tempered, to the point that he was lucky to escape gelding when he was a colt. He routinely carried heavier weights in an apparently futile attempt to slow him down. His rump measured an inch higher than his withers, an anatomical peculiarity which probably contributed to his ability to gallop at a pace of 83 feet per second, or a stride of 25 feet.
So what made Eclipse able to run so incredibly fast? The genetic testing is ongoing, but the skeletal resource offers some interesting clues. The Structure and Motion Workshop at the RVC is using CT scans of his skeletal measurements, detailed accounts of his races, and copies of paintings to recreate his movement patterns. Eclipse was ultimately very average–not unusually tall, nor deep chested, nor with long “Thoroughbred” legs. In fact, his legs are average length–which contributed to his speed because he was able to bring his legs forward quickly–an impossible feat for an animal with really long legs–but a crucial component for rebalancing with each stride. Dr Alan Wilson, who led the RVC study said:
“Rather than being some freak of nature with incredible properties, he was actually just right in absolutely every way.”
Eclipse’s career as a racehorse began when he was five, an age that modern Thoroughbreds have retired. He won nine races, often by 10-20 furlongs. The distances were much longer than today’s courses, ranging from two to four miles per race. The following year he won nine races again, and retired in 1771 as there were no owners willing to run their horses against him. His stud career didn’t match his brilliant racing career initially, as Herod and Highflyer sired more winners during his lifetime. But as the progenitor of Secretariat and Phar Lap, he ultimately proved to be the more successful at stud.
Eclipse lived to the ripe old age of 24, when he was felled by colic. An autopsy found his heart weighed 6.3 kilos–quite large for a 16 hand horse. His descendants continue to rule the racecourses today–particularly from the Pot-8-os and King Fergus lines.