Today I will be at Sandown to see the 121st running of The Eclipse. I won’t give the race’s full title with the sponsor’s name, due to the sponsor telling me some years ago they did not wish to do business with me any more (I still have copies of the somewhat terse correspondence with them) and I see no reason to advertise their name here.
The race was, of course, named after the great racehorse Eclipse, foaled during, and named after, the solar eclipse of 1st April 1764. In all he ‘raced’ 18 times, although 8 of these were walkovers, and in the contested races the fields were generally very small. The most competitors he faced in a race was 4, and he was eventually retired to stud in 1771, basically due to a lack of competition willing to take him on. He was a great success at stud, siring around 350 winners, and he can be found in the bloodlines of virtually every thoroughbred running today.
The first running of the race bearing his name was in 1886 with what was at that time the biggest prize fund in British racing, £10,000, and was won by a horse named Bendigo. Over the years many, many great horses have won The Eclipse, and I love when this time of year comes around and Racing UK shows the final 2 furlongs of most of the last 20 years’ renewals back-to-back during breaks in the live racing.
Some of my own personal favourites are Ezzoud in 1994 (whom I didn’t back in The Eclipse but did the two times he won the Juddmonte International at York); Halling who was a dual winner in 1995 and 1996 (and also a dual winner of the Juddmonte International those same two years); the ‘iron horse’ Giant’s Causeway, who was a real gutsy fighter whenever he was challenged close to home, in 2000; Falbrav in 2003; Notnowcato in 2007, who was given a brilliant ride by Ryan Moore down the stand-side rail when all others raced far-side and the TV cameras missed Notnowcato almost right up to the winning line.
Then there was the great Sea The Stars in 2009; Derby winner Golden Horn in 2015, who went on to win the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe later in the year, and through to last year’s winner the Sir Michael Stoute trained Ulysses.
Today’s renewal does not in my view stand out as having the look of a particularly strong one. The Eclipse is the first Group 1 race of the year in which the 3yo generation meets its elders, and in this year’s race, there does not appear to me to be a top-class older horse to take on the youngsters. At the time of writing, there are only three older horses; Forest Ranger, Cliffs Of Moher and Hawkbill. All of these are currently priced at 9/1 or higher. Hawkbill has the prestige of being a previous winner of the race in 2016 as a 3yo; Forest Ranger will doubtless race prominently and might just hang on for a place, whilst Cliffs Of Moher seems to be out running in Group races every second week and cannot to my mind be seen as a probable winner.
That leaves the three year olds. Now that Masar, the Derby winner, is out of the race, that leaves the filly Happily, the 100/1 outsider Raymond Tusk, both unlikely winners in my view, and the two likelier candidates, Roaring Lion, the Dante winner who was third to Masar in the Derby, and Saxon Warrior, the 2000 Guineas winner who was fourth to Masar in that race, and who ran third just seven days ago in a ‘family affair’ Irish Derby, a race dominated by the O’Brien ‘mafia’, with son Joseph training the winner and father Aiden training the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th home.
To look at direct form between the two major contenders, Masar had beaten Roaring Lion 3 times, beaten Saxon Warrior once (the Derby) and lost once to Saxon Warrior (the 2000 Guineas. Roaring Lion has, as already stated, lost 3 times to Masar, and also twice to Saxon Warrior, but beat Saxon Warrior when one spot ahead of him in the Derby. From all this, you can, if you are so inclined, work out Saxon Warrior’s direct form with the others. It’s like a game of Cluedo, or, as the infinitely amusing Irish columnist and novelist, Flann O’Brien (no relation!), might have said – “It’s a tough pancake!”
Whilst the lack of an apparent strong challenge from the older generation detracts from the race for me to a certain degree, the fascinating recent history of the main protagonists against each other makes up for that.
So, who will win? For me, the Saxon Warrior entry is slightly strange. It would not be often that you would see an Aiden O’Brien Group 1 horse racing in a second Group 1 race just 7 days after a previous one. That said, Aiden O’Brien clearly is a trainer who knows what he is doing. Far be it from me to suggest that shenanigans were afoot in that Irish Derby won by Aiden’s son Joseph, but when looking for the answer to an almost impossible question such as this race throws up, and I get that slight ‘something strange happening here’ feeling, I pay more attention to it than hours of who-beat-who-when-and-by-how-far-and-at-what-distance circular argument studying.
So, based on a hunch (that being one way to separate the main contenders) if I have to choose a winner it’s Saxon Warrior for me. He should be available at about 9/4, and whilst it’s not a price to get too excited about, it makes for a worthwhile ‘interest’ bet for those who want to have a wager in the race.