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SUPER STUD ..and his Irish owner was a bit of a lad, too; Up to 95 per cent of thoroughbreds racing today could be descended from just one 18th-century wonder horse..

Byline: By VANESSA ALLEN

AS the Cheltenham Festival begins today it's a dead cert one horse will dominate the field - even though he died over 200 years ago.

The super stallion's descendants include Gold Cup favourite Kauto Star, and up to 95 per cent of all thoroughbreds.

So it's a fair bet whoever you back, you will be putting your money on the daddy of them all - Eclipse, described as the greatest racehorse ever and ancestor of legends such as Desert Orchid and Arkle.

But in his day Eclipse was saddled with a rogue for an owner whose exploits became almost as famous as his horse.

Legend has it Eclipse was born on April 1, 1764, during a solar eclipse. His breeder was the Duke of Cumberland, son of King George II.

But within 18 months the Duke was dead and Eclipse was sold to a sheep dealer, William Wildman, who had stables at Micklesham, Surrey.

He began racing in 1769 and his amazing speed and running style - with his head down by the ground - made him an instant hit after his first race at Epsom. Dennis O'Kelly saw him race and said he could name the finishing positions of the horses in the next race.

He declared: "Eclipse first, the rest nowhere." That meant the rest of the field would finish more than 240 yards behind the leader, known as "nowhere".

He won his bet, bought a share in Eclipse and went on buy him outright.

The horse won all his races and became an 18th-century celebrity, painted by top artists such as George Stubbs.

But he could not run in some of the most valuable races as they were only open to Jockey Club members - and O'Kelly, a militia captain from Tullow, Co Carlow, was blackballed for his scandalous behaviour.

He landed in the Fleet Prison for his debts. There he met Charlotte Hayes, the most prominent brothel-keeper of the time, and they became lovers.

On their release, Charlotte bought them a house in Epsom and O'Kelly began to style himself as Count O'Kelly.

Eclipse sired around 400 foals, earning about EUR37,000 - more than EUR2million today.

His sons included three Derby winners and a grandson called Copenhagen, was the Duke of Wellington's Waterloo mount.

More than 200 years later, experts at the Royal Veterinary College used CT scans of his skeleton to create computer models of Eclipse.

Dr Alan Wilson said: "Rather than being some freak of nature with incredible properties, he was actually just right in absolutely every way."

His skeleton is on display in the Jockey Club Museum in Newmarket and the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown were named after him, as were the Eclipse Awards.

But his spirit - and his genes - live on at every race meeting in Britain.

Rather than being some freak of nature, he was actually right in every way

- TOP VET DR ALAN WILSON

vanessa.allen@mirror.co.uk

CAPTION(S):

REINING CHAMP: Artist captured Eclipse on canvas; JUMPING LEGEND: Arkle in full flight; SKELETON KEY: In Jockey Club museum; FAVOURITE: Kauto Star in Gold Cup
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 13, 2007
Words:515
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