Unofficial Thoroughbred Hall of Fame

American Eclipse

On May 25, 1814, on General Nathaniel Coles' farm on Long Island, his broodmare Miller's Damsel, Queen of the Northern Turf and a daughter of the famed *Messenger, foaled a chestnut colt to the cover of Duroc, a son of Epsom Derby winner *Diomed. The colt had yet to be weaned when he presented General Coles with such a display of speed that he earned the name American Eclipse, after the immortal English stallion whose undisputed dominance of the turf world extends to modern time.

With a name seemingly impossible to live up to, American Eclipse began his career by putting in nine weeks of training at the age of three, at the end of which he proved to be "very superior" in a trial. He was then turned out until the following spring.

In 1818, he earned three hundred dollars with an easy win in his only start at the age of four, a purse of three-mile heats at Newmarket Course in New York in which he defeated Black-Eyed Susan and Sea Gull.

The following season General Coles sold Eclipse to Cornelius Van Ranst for the price of $3,000. He raced twice for Van Ranst. The first time he defeated Little John, Bond's Eclipse, and James Fitzjames in a race of four mile heats. That October he again beat Little John at four mile heats, and was retired to stud having added one thousand dollars to his earnings that season.

New York racing at the beginning of the nineteenth century paled in comparison to the southern version of the sport, and in order to rectify the situation, the world's first dirt race track was built on Long Island in 1821, about three miles from the current site of Aqueduct. The president of Union Course, John Cox Stevens, asked Cornelius Van Ranst to aid his venture by bringing his undefeated stallion American Eclipse out of retirement to meet the southern mare Lady Lightfoot, a daughter of the great Sir Archy and winner of 31 races, in a $500 purse at four mile heats, on opening day.

American Eclipse handed defeat to Lady Lightfoot in two straight heats, running the first of the four mile heats in 8:04 with the southern mare two lengths behind, and the other entrants, Flag of Truce and Heart of Oak, even further back. Then, following the withdrawal of all but Lady Lightfoot, he galloped home in 8:02 in the second heat, with Lady Lightfoot distanced, an eighth of a mile back.

This famous painting of American Eclipse by Edward Troye is currently at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs

At the age of eight, American Eclipse met a top northern horse, Sir Walter, in a $700 purse of four mile heats. Again, he won easily. Sir Walter tried to redeem himself that fall, only to lose again. American Eclipse earned a purse of one thousand dollars for the effort. The victory over Sir Archy's daughter, followed by the two consecutive wins the following season, prompted James J. Harrison of Virginia to suggest a match between American Eclipse and Sir Archy's famous son Sir Charles. The two were to meet in Washington, D.C., for $5,000 a side. After the first match was forfeited by Harrison due to injury, American Eclipse met Sir Charles on November 20, 1822, and beat the southern horse "with great ease."

That evening, a challenge was offered by a group of Southern horseman, including the "Napoleon of the Turf," Colonel William R. Johnson, at a jockey club dinner, and the northerners counter-challenged, with John C. Stevens, president of Union Course, boldly stating that American Eclipse would beat any Southern horse of Colonel Johnson's choosing in a match of four mile heats on Union Course the following spring. The conditions for the match were set and agreed upon, with a $20,000 purse to be paid by the losing side, and the South was not required to name its entry until post time. The upcoming match was literally to be "Eclipse, against the world."

Colonel Johnson and the others returned home to spend the winter conditioning horses for the match, the first national sporting event in American history. Johnson started north that spring with five horses: John Richards, his full sister Betsey Richards, Sir Henry, Childers, and Washington. Four of them, like Sir Charles and Lady Lightfoot, were sired by Sir Archy, and the fifth was his grandson.

On May 27, 1823, a crowd of more than 60,000 people witnessed the event, including most of the members of Congress, which had adjourned for the day, Vice President Daniel D. Tompkins, future President Andrew Jackson, and former Vice President Aaron Burr. Wagering on the event was so significant as to risk financial crisis in the losing region. Southerners bet their entire plantations, without even knowing which horse Colonel Johnson would choose to run. In order to relay the results of each heat to New York City as quickly as possible, a system of signals was arranged. If American Eclipse won a heat, then a white flag would be run up, but if the Southern entry were to win a heat, a black flag would be flown.

Colonel Johnson chose to run Lemuel Long's four-year-old colt Sir Henry, a chestnut son of Sir Archy, after his first choice, John Richards, grabbed a quarter while training. Since the conditions stated weight for age, nine year old American Eclipse was required to carry 126 pounds, giving eighteen pounds to his younger rival.

As the two equine stars, carrying the hopes of two entire sections of the young nation thundered into the stretch, Sir Henry led by a length and a half. The southern rider was without whip or spur, for his horse ran under a hard pull. American Eclipse, however, was not so lucky. Crafts used his whip quite excessively, to the expense of his riding skills. Writing for the Turf Register, "An Old Turfman" later reported the following:

"Crafts continued to make free use of the whip; his right hand in so doing was necessarily disengaged from the bridle, his arm often raised high in the air, his body thrown abroad, and his seat loose and unsteady; not having the strength to hold and gather his horse with one hand and at the same time keep his proper position; in order to acquire a greater purchase, he had thrown his body quite back to the cantle of the saddle, struck his feet forward by way of bracing himself with the aid of the stirrups, and in this style he was belaboring his horse..."

Eclipse chased Henry into the final quarter, gaining only slightly as the final post drew near. Sir Henry was the winner by a length, with a then record time of 7:37 1/2. "An Old Turfman" described the scene at the winning post:

"Sir Henry was less distressed than I had expected to find him; Eclipse also bore it well, but of the two he appeared the most jaded; the injudicious manner in which he had been ridden had certainly annoyed and unnecessarily irritated him; ...Crafts, in using his whip wildly, had struck him too far back, and had cut him not only upon his sheath, but had made a deep incision upon his testicles ...The blood flowed profusely from both of these foul cuts... The incapacity of Crafts to manage Eclipse -who required much urging, and at the same time to be pulled hard-was apparent to all."

The sight of a black flag on Long Island induced panic in the city, and produced dire consequences on Wall Street, where the bottom fell out of the Stock Market. At the race course, the odds on Eclipse were raised, and after a half hour rest, and a jockey change for the Northern entry, the second heat began.

For the first three miles, Sir Henry showed the way. At the start of the fourth mile, Purdy, on American Eclipse, asked his mount the question and made a powerful brush for the lead. The Northern horse passed on the inside, and drew away from Sir Henry to win by two lengths in the impressive time of 7:49. As for the scene in the crowded stands, "An Old Turfman" observed:

"...As they passed up the stretch, the shouting, clapping of hands, waving of handkerchiefs, long and loud applause sent forth by the Eclipse party exceeded all description; it seemed to roll along the track as the horses advanced, resembling the loud and reiterated shout of contending armies..."

For the third heat, the Southern camp changed riders, putting Arthur Taylor on Sir Henry. Taylor was described as "a trainer of great experience, and long a rider equaled by few and surpassed by none." He was told to allow Eclipse the early lead, and save his own mount for the stretch drive. Purdy was aware of Taylor's orders, and forced him to use Henry severely in order to trail behind, and did not allow him to keep anything in reserve. Sir Henry made his run in the stretch, fought hard, then fell back again. The white flag was sent up the pole, and back in New York the stock market made a full recovery.

While the North celebrated victory, Sir Henry's supporters mourned their loss in no small way. Several Southerners, having lost their plantations, committed suicide on the spot, and the financial impact of the loss was felt for some time. The challenge of a rematch was made immediately, but was turned down by John Stevens. It was nineteen years before the American Turf witnessed another such national contest.

American Eclipse retired permanently following his victory in the Great North-South Match Race of 1823. He was purchased at auction by Walter Livingstone for $8,050 and began his stud career in New York. He later stood in both Virginia and Kentucky. American Eclipse died in Shelby County, Kentucky, in August of 1847 at the age of thirty-three. At the time he was owned by Jilson Yates. He sired Medoc, who was twice leading sire, Mingo, and the filly Ariel. He was bred to Lady Lightfoot, who had been purchased by John Stevens, in 1825, and she produced a black filly the following spring, then died two days later. The filly, named Black Maria, raced for Stevens, and became known as the Twenty Mile Mare after defeating Trifle in a grueling match which required five separate heats of four miles to decide the winner. As the Turf Register of 1832 described her:

"Her color is indicated by her name, and her great size, strength, and stride show her a worthy daughter of a noble sire."

American Eclipse, 1814 chestnut colt

Duroc Diomed Florizel Herod
Daughter of Cygnet
Sister-to-Juno Spectator
Sister to Horatius by Blank
Amanda Grey Diomed Medley
Mare by Sloe
Mare by Virginia Cade Virginia Cade
Mare by Hickman's Independence
Miller's Damsel Messenger Mambrino Engineer
Mare by Cade
Daughter of Turf Turf
Mare by Regulus
Constable's Mare Pot-8-o's Eclipse
Mare by Gimcrack Gimcrack
Snap-dragon by Snap


Recommended titles include: Champions from the Daily Racing Form, Thoroughbred Champions: Top 100 of the 20th Century from Blood-Horse, and Man O' War: Thoroughbred Legends #1 by Edward L. Bowen, as well as Seabiscuit on DVD .
Seabiscuit DVD

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