American Eclipse (1814 to 1847) was a light chestnut Thoroughbred race horse named for the great English champion Eclipse. The original Eclipse (1764 to 1789) was named for the total eclipse of the sun that occurred as he was being born, and was so outstanding that for years people named their horses Eclipse this and Eclipse that in the vain hope they had another Eclipse, about whom it was said: "Eclipse first—the rest nowhere."
American Eclipse was the one horse worthy of the name. By Duroc (by the founding stallion Diomed), out of Miller's Damsel (known when she raced as the "Queen of the Northern Turf," Miller's Damsel was also sired by one of America's four founding stallions: Messenger), American Eclipse was bred on Long Island, New York by General Nathaniel Coles. Interestingly enough, Miller’s Damsel’s dam was Pot8os Mare by Pot8os by the original Eclipse himself.
American Eclipse proved himself worthy of his name as soon as he began training and was entered in his first trial. One thing he could do, even though he stood only 15.1 hands high was something Seabiscuit could do; he could eat. And the other thing he could do was run. In time, he became according to all who saw him, the greatest racehorse of his day.
Coles didn't start him until he was a three-year-old, and then he ran him lightly. He was also raced lightly at four, but proved himself the better horse each time.
At five he raced for Cornelius W. Van Ranst who had purchased him from Coles. At five he was as good as he had always been, but Van Ranst put him out to stud at six. At ages six and seven he bred to a number of mares. But to help the newly opened Union Course, Van Ranst put him back into training. In his next start he beat the highly regarded and very good mare by the great Sir Archy (by Diomed), Lady Lightfoot, in the first heat. He distanced her in the second heat when only he and she were still in the race since all others had withdrawn. In his next race, all other horses withdrew after facing American Eclipse in the first heat except Sir Walter who sulked (meaning he gave up) allowing American Eclipse to virtually walk home.
At this point a match race was organized between American Eclipse and James J. Harrison’s Sir Charles. Sir Charles, at the time considered the lion of the turf with 20 wins to his credit, injured himself in a workout and Harrison was required to forfeit the match. Again American Eclipse walked home. A second match was arranged, only a single heat, and this time Sir Charles raced, but American Eclipse romped home...which is not to say Sir Charles did not race well. American Eclipse was simply the better horse.
The South's pride was outraged that Sir Charles lost so easily to the North. So, when American Eclipse was nine years old, they issued a ringing challenge, intending to race five of their very best horses against American Eclipse, representing, of course, the North. The race was to be run six months from the date of the challenge over the old Long Island Union Course. (This kind of thing was often done, with no one knowing what condition a horse might be in after six months, and in this case, with the South not having to name the horses challenging.) 60,000 people would come out to see American Eclipse go up against veteran four-milers: Childers, Betsey Richards, and Henry (only three-years-old and by Sir Archy). Also racing were John Richards and Washington, not tested at such a distance, but with so much time before the race, their owners intended they would be. By the time the race came round, two Southern horses had pulled out: Washington for proving not good enough in his training, and John Richards for injury.
Among the great crowd at Union Course on May 27, 1823 was Andrew Jackson, then American governor of Florida. So was the Vice-President of the United States, Daniel Tompkins, and the infamous Aaron Burr, who shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel about 19 years earlier (July 11, 1804), but proved more than useful in the American War of Independence when he fought using Native American tactics against the red-coated British.
Henry was the favorite. He'd won more races than American Eclipse and he'd raced more recently. Racing three horses, and ridden by William Crafts, American Eclipse lost the first heat (the only time he was ever beaten) to Henry. American Eclipse, at nine, carried 126 pounds to his much younger rival carrying only 108 pounds. True to the custom of the times, a commenator raced along with the participants on a fast horse so he might obtain close impressions of all that happened. In this case, it was a famed turf historian called Cadwallader R. Colden, who wrote under the name "An Old Turfman." In all written accounts left to us it was said that American Eclipse was ridden badly by Crafts, whipped and spurred in this first heat until he threw his tail up and down in distress and pain. Crafts did not let up, scoring the horse's side until the blood ran, even hitting his testicles. Henry took the heat in the fastest time ever run in America. It's possible that all along the South meant to sacrifice Henry at this killing pace, thereby winning bets on the first heat, so that another horse might beat American Eclipse who would tire from the pace. (This may or may not be true; there are conflicting reports.) William Crafts was removed as jockey after this heat, and American Eclipse given a new jockey, the noted Samuel Purdy who had retired but took to the saddle gladly for a horse he'd ridden in his youth. There are conflicting reports about this as well. Some say Purdy refused the mount before the race until he saw Crafts ride. Some say he came to the track ready to ride and begged Van Ranst for the mount with tears in his eyes. Whatever the truth, Purdy finished the race. The second heat was nothing like the first. American Eclipse did not allow Henry to run away with it, keeping on his flank constantly. And Purdy took great chances in his tactics, tactics which proved winners. In the third and last heat, the horses were exhausted, but the older horse was the more seasoned horse, as well as the better horse, and he won to the jubilation of the North.
After this match, American Eclipse was finally retired to stud—for good this time.
He was sold in a public auction for $8,050 to Walter Livingstone who then stood him in New York. It was in New York that he sired his best son, Medoc. Then he was sent to Virginia and finally, in 1837, to Kentucky. American Eclipse produced Ariel, a filly who won 42 of 57 starts, including 18 4-mile heats, Black Maria (out of Lady Lightfoot, his old rival) who won 11 races at 3- and 4-mile heats, Ten Broeck (not the Nantura Farm Ten Broeck), Monmouth Eclipse, Bay Maria, and Gano.
Last owned by Jilson Yates, he died in Shelby County, Kentucky, in August 1847. In his 8 starts he won 8 times, earning $56,700.
American Eclipse lived until he was 33 years old. It took another one hundred and twenty three years before he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1970.