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Since antiquity, various human groups have tried to select the qualities they wanted in horses. From the Tarpan, one of the equidae that populated the East, the first and most important of all breeds of horses was born: the Arabian thoroughbred, a mount characterised by frugality, endurance, speed and fascinating beauty. In North Africa, from local horses that managed to survive the last ice ages, the Barbary horse was created, a horse that, like the Arabian, influenced the formation of many horse breeds existing today. Perhaps one of the first to be influenced by the Barbary horse is the Spanish horse, which descends from the crossbreeding of North African horses with local mares from the Iberian Peninsula.
Fascination with horses also reached England, whose kings, from the 16th century onwards, began to select high-speed horses to compete in races. To do this, they added the blood of females of other breeds, such as Barbary or Spanish, to the blood of their local mares.
After two centuries of experimentation with the local stable, British breeders turned to the horses that English travellers had encountered on their journeys to the East in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, namely the fast and hardy Arabian horses. Three are the stallions that gave birth to the entire breeding of the future English thoroughbred: Byerley Turk, from whom the branch of the legendary Eclipse originated; Darley Arabian, who was the father of the first great racehorse, Flying Childers, and Godolphin Arabian, ancestor of the famous Matchem . and Eclipse.
In a firmament full of stars, perhaps the most reflective is Eclipse, a horse that was born in the spring of 1764 in the stable of the Duke of Cumberland, during a solar eclipse, hence its name. He was a son of Spiletta and – according to the General Stud Book – of Marske, although it is not clear which horse was his sire as the mare was inadvertently also covered by the stallion Shakespeare. When her breeder died, her new owner, William Wildman, had problems with the indomitable foal. So, after selling half the horse to Colonel O’Kelly, the latter entrusted his training to a renowned Irish trainer, Sullivan, who succeeded in making him a winner, invincible in the race. The champion, eventually owned exclusively by O’Kelly, was eventually transfigured into a living legend who would leave countless champions in his wake.
Curiously, such a fast horse almost closed the racecourse, as no one was betting on his rivals. Some even thought of ending up with this chestnut projectile which, according to the data of the time, could reach 90 kilometres per hour. It seems that the high performance of this equine athlete rested on a big heart and strong lungs. After winning all the races in which he took part, and overwhelmed by threats, his owner devoted him to stud work, multiplying the profits that the steed had brought him.
Among his many descendants, there were more than three hundred who are known to have won some of the races they took part in. In addition to his presumptuous power and legendary speed, Eclipse was able to pass on to his many descendants his strong temperament, inherited from his maternal great-grandfather, Godolphin Arabian, who, like Alexander the Great’s Mount Bucephalus, was only ridden by his beloved rider, a young Arab named Agba.
Today, English thoroughbreds, descendants of the most famous of all racehorses, are the most sought-after breed in the world, while being able to carry high weights over long distances. They are surrounded by a thriving industry, supported by both breeding and competition. Possessing great physical and mental energy, many believe that some horses can show a nervous and difficult character, making them suitable only for highly specialised riders.
Eclipse was born in 1764 in the stable of the Duke of Cumberland. After taming the foal’s indomitable character, Colonel O’Kelly made him an invincible winner in the race. He won every race he entered and was retired by his owner to become a stallion. In the photo, George Stubbs’ oil painting shows Eclipse with William Wildman, who acquired the horse from the Duke of Cumberland’s family, and his two sons.