Two hundred and fifty years ago this month one of the greatest horses of all-time recorded his most famous victory. His owner, one of the greatest Irish blackguards ever to seek his fortune on a foreign shore, had just completed the purchase of the horse. Together they made a team which became legendary in their lifetimes.
he horse, Eclipse, is remembered today not only because of the race which takes place in his honour every year at Sandown Park, but also because 95 per cent of present-day thoroughbreds are descended from him. The owner, Dennis O'Kelly, is a largely forgotten figure, though his was one of the most remarkable rags-to-riches stories of the 18th century.
According to the Dictionary of Irish Biography, O'Kelly was born in 1728 in Tullow, Carlow. The O'Kellys may have had money at one stage, but by that time were impoverished smallholders. With neither money nor prospects, Dennis resolved to try his luck in London.
His beginnings were unpromising. In his early 20s he found himself working as a sedan chair carrier. The taxi drivers of their day, carriers were known for their ruthlessness in taking to the footpaths to clear pedestrians out of the way. Young O'Kelly used his access to noble customers to begin an affair with a rich young woman. Swindling her out of her inheritance provided him with the money he needed to begin a career as a gambler.
It was an age when betting, in the words of the writer TH White, "became a mania". Aristocrats lost fortunes and estates at the tables and gambled on the most bizarre contests. Lord Rockingham and Lord Horford arranged "a match for five hundred pounds between five turkeys and five geese to run from Norwich to London".
Another gambler, writes White, "bet that a human being could live under water, hired a desperado, sank him in some receptacle and drowned him. He promptly hired another desperado to try again."
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O'Kelly was a shrewd gambler at cards and on the results of billiards and tennis matches, but his luck seemed to run out in 1757 when he was convicted of fraud by the magistrate John Fielding, half-brother of Tom Jones author Henry. Narrowly escaping the gallows, O'Kelly would spend the next four years in London's Fleet Prison.
Yet even that turned out to be a lucky break for the Carlow man. Because it was in the Fleet that he met Charlotte Hayes, the love of his life and proof of the adage that every successful man needs a good woman alongside him. Though perhaps good might not be the most appropriate word for the daughter of a brothel keeper who'd carried on the family trade before being imprisoned.
Freed in 1761 during an amnesty to celebrate the accession to the throne of King George III, O'Kelly and Hayes, who'd been born Charlotte Ward in Genoa, set about revolutionising their areas of expertise.
The former became one of the very first bookmakers, accepting odds from all comers at racecourses where previously betting had merely involved wagers between the owners of the horses involved.
The latter moved the sex trade upmarket, setting up a four-storey establishment near the royal residence of St James's Palace. Within a few years O'Kelly and Hayes were, in today's money, millionaires.
There was a symbiotic element to their partnership. In the words of the historian GM Trevelyan, "perhaps no set of men and women since the world began enjoyed so many different sides of life, with so much zest, as the English upper class at this period". The same aristocrats who gambled with O'Kelly at the tables and on the course often visited the Hayes establishment as well.
Business went so well for the duo that O'Kelly was not only able to set up his own racing stables but to buy a country house at Clay Hill, near Epsom. And it was on the Epsom Downs in 1769 that he saw the horse with whom his name would forever be linked. O'Kelly was so impressed by Eclipse that when the horse ran at Epsom on May 3 he placed a bet which would pass into racing legend.
"Eclipse first, the rest nowhere," predicted O'Kelly. In racing at the time a horse more than 240 yards behind the winner was not given a place. Eclipse duly beat the field by the required margin and O'Kelly won his bet. Within a year he'd bought the horse from William Wildman, the final instalment of 1,100 guineas being paid in April 1770.
That was the month when a rival worthy of challenging Eclipse seemed to finally have arrived. Bucephalus had been as invincible in the north of England as Eclipse had been in the south and their meeting in Newmarket was eagerly awaited. For once Eclipse found a horse able to keep up with him for most of the race. But when he moved up another gear Bucephalus was swept aside. The pride of Yorkshire was so shattered by the contest he did not run again for a year.
Eclipse finished his career unbeaten, and rarely extended, in 18 races. By the end he was running at odds of 1/70 despite carrying a weight of 12 stone. After Eclipse's retirement it would be 70 years before a horse won a top-class race carrying this much weight.
O'Kelly's career went from strength to strength too. He owned two of the first five Derby winners, Young Eclipse in 1781 and Sergeant in 1784. A look at other successful owners in those years illustrates what an anomalous figure he cut at the top table. There is the 12th Earl of Derby, the 5th Duke of Bedford, the 3rd Earl of Egremont and the Prince of Wales, and then there is the once impoverished Irish jailbird who remained illiterate his entire life.
The aristocracy took their revenge by denying O'Kelly membership of the Jockey Club, despite the fact that he'd started styling himself first Major and then Colonel after purchasing a commission in a dubious militia regiment in Middlesex. Yet they were only too happy to accept his hospitality at Clay Hill and Cannons, the villa and deer park he bought near Edgware as he grew richer still from Eclipse's stud fees with the horse siring 930 progeny in 17 years.
It would be wrong to romanticise O'Kelly and Hayes. He was sued for sexual assault on one occasion and may well have expedited the sale of Eclipse by Wildman through a campaign of anonymous threats. Some of the women Hayes employed had been duped into prostitution. Yet there is something remarkable about the duo's ability to claw their way up in a notoriously ruthless age. This was an era when, as a special treat, Mozart's father could bring his 10-year-old son to a public hanging which the youngster and his teenage sister thoroughly enjoyed.
One of the best-selling books of the time was Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies, a directory of London brothels originally written by Samuel Derrick, an émigré Dubliner and friend of Charlotte Hayes. Less than two months after Eclipse's win over Bucephalus, the anti-Catholic Gordon riots caused several hundred deaths in London. That world was vastly different from ours, with moral standards which seem entirely alien to the modern eye.
But though O'Kelly's fearsomeness was proverbial, he also possessed an attractive personality. Reading the great racing historian Roger Mortimer's description of him as "a typical Irish adventurer with quick wit, considerable charm and the thickest of skins" is to be reminded of how well those qualities have served many other Irishmen on the make across the water.
When O'Kelly died the Edinburgh Magazine declared: "The habits of his life cannot be commended yet his intentions were good and expanded as his fortune increased. He was charitable without ostentation and prosperity did not inflate him with pride; for he called his relations from obscurity and penury, supported them in ease and plenty and at his death left them independent."
That death took place in 1787 as gout, that great disease of the age, carried off the old scoundrel. Eclipse survived his owner by just 14 months before dying of colic. An autopsy revealed that his heart was abnormally large and weighed 14 pounds, a full five pounds above average.
Charlotte Hayes lived on 26 years after her husband, accompanied by a parrot whose ability to recite one of the psalms was said to be her owner's only concession to religion. As the racing writer Christopher McGrath has noted, the longevity of the partnership between Hayes and O'Kelly "suggest a greater capacity for fidelity and tenderness in both of them than can be inferred from their perfidy to everyone else."
Keen to keep his heir and nephew Andrew away from the temptations of horse racing, O'Kelly stipulated in his will that the young man lose £500 if he took up the sport. Andrew carried on regardless and fulfilled a family ambition by being elected to the Jockey Club. Before long he formed a racing partnership with the Prince of Wales, later to become King George IV.
The O'Kellys had come a long way from Tullow. Money makes everything respectable in the end.