Bantam £25 (344pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897

Eclipse, By Nicholas Clee

When Thomas Babington Macaulay wanted to say that Boswell's biography of Johnson was the only one that counted, he lighted on a handy catch-phrase: "Eclipse first, the rest nowhere." This memorable line was coined at the Epsom races on 3 May 1769, when one Dennis O'Kelly predicted how the next race would go. He meant something precise: that the horse Eclipse would pass the finishing post before the others had reached the distance marker, so they would get no position and the only horse placed would be Eclipse, the winner.

O'Kelly's confidence was natural: he was Eclipse's owner. It was also justified. Eclipse won this race, as he did many others, and went on to become the most successful breeding stallion of all time. His bloodline still dominates: through male offspring alone, he is ancestor to around 95 percent of all today's thoroughbreds. Eclipse's genes have lived on, twinkling through the centuries like the remains of an exploded star.

Nicholas Clee tells Eclipse's story together with those of a number of his descendants and associated humans. It is a centaur of a book: half-human, half-horse. But Clee knows how to tell a gripping story: he weaves the halves together into a well-written narrative of social change. He shows us how, in racing as in other aspects of life, corporate greed and commodification have steadily taken over from the gentlemanly pursuit of pleasure.

The commodity at the heart of the story is a substance worth more than oil or fine wines: horse semen. Owners of the top stallions today charge six-figure sums per pop, and expect their animals to manage 100 or more "coverings" per season. But a lot can go wrong, and only a few have what it takes. O'Kelly was among the first to spot this quality, and to see that this was where racing's real money lay.

An astute businessman as well as a gambler, he was a well-known figure at 18th-century races. His bear-like form was recognisable from afar, and he makes a vivid character here. He was mocked in England for his Irish brogue and scruffy dress, but his financial judgement was sharper than his suit, and he left his heirs a fortune, including profitable Eclipse shares.

O'Kelly and his mistress, the brothel madam Charlotte Hayes – one of Eclipse's later co-owners - dominate the human half of the story. There is a downside, for when they die, they take much of the narrative interest with them. By contrast, Eclipse's death in 1789 marks the beginning of an afterlife just as absorbing as the life.

It launches us on a tour through a series of his most noteworthy descendants, from Hambletonian, Whalebone and Pot8os (a horse whose name seems to have arrived via text-message from the 21st century) to modern stars such as Nijinsky, who exerted a spell on Clee himself as a young race-going enthusiast. The book ends with a visit to what purports to be Eclipse's skeleton, at the Royal Veterinary College. It has more claim to authenticity than other relics, which have included nine hooves – surely more than any horse needs, however fast - and enough tail-hairs to stuff a sofa.

Assuming it is genuine, the skeleton is interesting precisely because it is unexceptional. Neither very large nor very sleekly designed, it excels simply by showing a perfect balance of thoroughbred qualities.

What made Eclipse immortal was not just this balance, but his ability to transmit it undiluted through the generations. His breeding rivals did not finish "nowhere": each finds his place in the genetic map. But, as this fascinating book makes clear, Eclipse is definitely still first among equines.

Sarah Bakewell's latest book is 'The English Dane' (Vintage)

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee