Eclipse, By Nicholas Clee

The first celebrity stallion, and his colourful owner, were the toast of 18th- century English society
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The Independent Culture

Eclipse was one of the first of England's great celebrity horses. He was the forerunner, as it were, of Brigadier Gerard, Secretariat, Arkle, Red Rum and Nijinsky. In an age before horseboxes, his walks from one racecourse to another would provoke crowds of onlookers to come to gawp at the chestnut racehorse with the white blaze on his face. When he raced, he tucked his head low and spread out his hind legs so far that it was said a wheelbarrow could have been driven through them. At a time when the main races were often preceded by a series of qualifying heats, successful mounts might have to run four races of four miles each in an afternoon. Yet Eclipse just kept on winning. It was only after the horse's death that the secret of his stamina was revealed: his heart weighed 14lbs; the average stallion's heart weighs nine pounds.

Eclipse's brilliance warranted the public curiosity. However, he had been so troublesome when young that his owners had considered castrating him. If they had done so, racing today would have been characterised by a completely different group of horses. The 930 colts and fillies he sired between 1771 and 1788 included two sons that are the ancestors of the most successful mounts of the modern age. Indeed, as the author says, "It is estimated that 95 per cent of contemporary thoroughbreds are Eclipse's male line descendants." Only three Derby winners in the past 50 years could not trace their bloodlines back to Eclipse.

Some of Clee's attempts to make his book of contemporary relevance are jarring. Explaining how a coffee house in the Strand, Munday's, was popular with the blacklegs who sucked money from the unwary in the horse-racing world, the author introduces us to the undeniably dark Dick England. However, saying that England was "as prone to violent rages as a psychopathic mafioso in a Martin Scorsese film" is too loose. Likewise, Sir Charles Bunbury, snooty supremo of the Jockey Club, is unconvincingly described as taking "defeat with the lack of grace of a modern football manager". Even more distracting is Clee's description of the temptations on offer around the Epsom race meeting: "What, Dennis might have reflected if he had used 21st-century idioms, was not to like?" Where was the editor when this slipped through?

The Dennis in question was "Count" O'Kelly, a charming, devious, intelligent chancer, who is the main human character in this tale. Eclipse helped transport him from debtors' jails to the ownership of one of the great stables in the country. He knew the true value of his finest horse, even declining £11,000 for him from Lord Grosvenor. Larger than life, eschewed by the bigwigs in the Jockey Club because of his coarseness, O'Kelly is a tremendous character with which to hold the narrative together. He even had a parrot who merited an obituary in The Gentleman's Magazine.

O'Kelly brings further colour to the tale through his long association with Charlotte Hayes, one of the most celebrated London madams. Charlotte and Dennis, says Clee, "were at the summit of two of the most important leisure industries in Britain". Charlotte's keen business brain persuaded her to import Parisian standards of sophistication to her bordello: she invented "elastic beds" for the greater enjoyment of her clients, and described herself as a "first lady abbess", who oversaw her "nuns". The services of some of these – who operated under pseudonyms such as "Poll Nimblewrist", or "Miss Birch" – could cost £100 a night, which was then four months' wages for a lawyer. Several of these ladies managed to escape formal prostitution to become the mistresses and even wives of wealthy clients.

This is a book about "the most influential stallion in the history of the thoroughbred" that aficionados of the turf will enjoy, since it brings to life a horse that has left behind a matchless legacy. For the casual reader, it is an enjoyable romp through a period knee-deep in fops, fools and fraudsters.