The Eclipse Stakes has been a hugely significant race since its inception in 1886. Named for one of the greatest horses in history, it is the first major clash between the Classic generation and their elders, and has showcased some of the finest races run in Britain.
From the Orme’s defeat of La Fleche, to the dead-heat between Lemberg and Neil Gow, to Giant Causeway’s lung-bursting triumph over Kalanisi, the Eclipse Stakes rarely fails to produce a fascinating and exciting race. One renewal stands out for the quality of participants and sheer drama of the event: the 1903 clash between Ard Patrick, Rock Sand and Sceptre.
The three protagonists had between them won seven Classic races (eight by the end of the season) and were the outstanding horses of their respective generations and genders.
Sceptre was considered one of the best racemares of all time having won the Fillies Triple Crown and 2000 Guineas in 1902, as well as numerous other top class races. Her only Classic defeat came in the Derby, where an arguably poor ride saw her finish fourth to Ard Patrick. The latter was a big, handsome colt who possessed a lot of raw talent, but had to contend with numerous leg problems that hampered his career after the Derby. Perhaps because of this, and the overwhelming popularity of Sceptre, he has been referred to as “the great unsung hero of British Flat racing”.
Challenging the two champion older horses was the best three year old of that year, Rock Sand. Already the excellent winner of the 2000 Guineas and Derby, he would go on to win the St Leger and complete the Triple Crown later that season.
All three horses came to the race in excellent condition. Sceptre entered the Eclipse off a rebound win in the Hardwicke Stakes at Royal Ascot, after a poor display in the Lincoln. Ard Patrick had returned to top form as a four year old and had recently won the Princess of Wales Stakes in a canter under 9st 8lbs, while Rock Sand was exiting a win in the St James Palace Stakes.
The race itself was described as being “worth a bare footed pilgrimage”, and an immense crowd, including the King, travelled to Esher to witness it. One commentator reported the place hadn’t been so crowded since Bendigo won the inaugural Eclipse in 1886. Despite the weather being mostly wet that year, the day broke out in beautiful sunshine to enhance the spectacle.
On the strength of his Classic victories that year, Rock Sand was rated the favourite at 5/4, followed by Sceptre at 7/4 and Ard Patrick at 5/1. The field also featured the Coronation Stakes winner Oriole and the Richmond Stakes winner Duke of Westminster, who had been a stablemate of Sceptre as a juvenile.
At the off, Oriole got away smartly to lead the field, followed by Rock Sand, Ard Patrick in a handy position, with Sceptre a little slow into stride as usual. As they approached the turn into the straight, Otto Madden urged Ard Patrick into a more prominent position and allowed him to match strides with the younger Derby winner. He soon appeared to have the measure of Rock Sand, and got first run on Sceptre, who was tracking him and still going easily.
A furlong from home, the crowd sensed Sceptre beginning her run and began to roar the mare home. Charging at her contemporary, Sceptre seemed to be heading for a win, and the preemptive cry of “Sceptre wins!” was heard in the grandstand. Ard Patrick was a horse of “extraordinary resolution and courage” and fought back against the mare, who in turn kept on battling. As Rock Sand faded, all eyes were on the two older horses as they duelled towards the line, both jockeys riding for their lives and their mounts giving their all. As they approached the finish Ard Patrick finally began to edge ahead and won by a close neck from the gallant Sceptre.
The crowd were in raptures afterwards, and pandemonium reigned for several minutes before the watchers regained their composure. The excitement was best summed up in the concluding remark: “No more racing. No race but one today”.
Neither the first nor the second lost anything in defeat, and Rock Sand soon restored his reputation in the St Leger, where he completed the Triple Crown. Sceptre continued her march of greatness and won her remaining four races (including a victory over Rock Sand in the Jockey Club Cup) but sadly Ard Patrick, who was being pointed to a final clash with the mare, suffered from more leg problems and was retired without running again.
This renewal of the Eclipse Stakes was described as the most exciting race since the match between The Flying Dutchman and Voltigeur at York over half a century before. It certainly provided the most thrilling spectacle for racing fans, and added to the legend of three outstanding champions.
Ard Patrick (1899) by St Florian out of Morganette
Derby (1902), Prince of Wales Stakes (1902), Princess of Wales’ Stakes (1903), Eclipse Stakes (1903)
Sceptre (1899) by Persimmon out of Ornament
1000 Guineas (1902), 2000 Guineas (1902), Oaks (1902), St James Palace Stakes (1902), St Leger (1902), Hardwicke Stakes (1903), Jockey Club Stakes (1903), Champion Stakes (1903)
Rock Sand (1900) by Sainfoin out of Roquebrune
Coventry Stakes (1902), Dewhurst Stakes (1902), 2000 Guineas (1903), Derby (1903), St James Palace Stakes (1903), St Leger (1904), Hardwicke Stakes (1904), Princess of Wales Stakes (1904), Jockey Club Stakes (1904)
By Alice Kay