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Eclipse by Nicholas Clee

Release date: 06th April, 2009
Publisher: Bantam Books

List Price: £24.62
Our Price: £13.37
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By Nicholas Clee
Bantam Press price: £13.37, a saving of £11.25 on rrp

There are few more captivating visions of sporting excellence than a thoroughbred racehorse in full flight. It is a thing of great beauty: a sleek, powerful beast careering towards the finish line, a sight whose attraction is enhanced should one happen to have a few quid on it to win.

Racehorses have not always been with us: all thoroughbreds descend directly from four, possibly just three, Arabian stallions imported from the Near East in the seventeenth century, although the term 'thoroughbred' was not used until the early eighteenth century. This was a period when horseracing enjoyed enormous popularity, particularly amongst the aristocracy, and for many of this cosseted elite it became an obsession.

One MP, Charles Fox , was more frequently to be found at Newmarket than in the Houses of Parliament and according to Nicholas Clee's excellent account, on one occasion in 1770, a government messenger had to be despatched "to seek [him] among the sportsmen on the Heath, to deliver dispatches upon which the fate of the country might have depended." The third Duke of Grafton was notionally Prime Minister for a while, but his attention tended to focus on the racecourse rather than affairs of state.

Betting on horse races was, comparatively speaking, enormous (in 1770, Fox won £16,000 on a single race) and into this world of aristocratic privilege and astonishing wealth, in 1764 a horse named Eclipse was born at a stud owned by the Duke of Cumberland. The Duke sold him to a meat salesman named William Wildman who, in turn, sold him to this book's second central character, Dennis O'Kelly, best described as a shrewd Irish entrepreneur.

By buying Eclipse, O'Kelly, a colourful enough man to have a mistress who doubled as a brothel-keeper, hit the jackpot. Eclipse was a horse years ahead of his time who won all 18 of his races, most with consummate ease. Upon retirement, he became a prodigious sire, which made O'Kelly a very rich man; Eclipse's male line of descendants has included many famous racing champions, amongst them Nijinsky and Desert Orchid.

There have been other books written about Eclipse's incredible performances, but Clee succeeds in weaving O'Kelly's antics seamlessly into his narrative, a technique which raises this book beyond the level of statistical interpretation and into a very enjoyable story.

O'Kelly, who had enjoyed a chequered background which included time spent in prison, was as far ahead of the aristocratic gamblers as Eclipse was of their lordships' horses. On one occasion when striking a bet, he was asked "where lay his estates, to answer for the amount if he lost?" O'Kelly's response was to produce his pocketbook, proclaiming: "My estates? I've a map of them here", at which point he revealed a wad of bank notes worth at least ten times the value of the bet just struck; he won the bet.

Eclipse's performances were beyond the ken of anyone, including O'Kelly. No-one had ever seen a horse so dominant, so superior, to all the others; indeed, many gamblers believed the horse was imbued with supernatural powers. It wasn't, but Eclipse succeeded in raising the thoroughbred bar to an almost inconceivable height, a feat which pleased the roguish Mr O'Kelly no end and which will astonish readers of this excellent book too.

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