The New York racehorse American Eclipse (1814-1847) defeated the southern horse Henry in a much-publicized race in 1823. The race consisted of three four-mile heats run at half-hour intervals. New Yorkers were particularly proud of having beaten southern speed with northern power and stamina. This essay explains why Eclipse was big and powerful, and why New Yorkers thought that size and strength (and not elegance and speed) were the qualities of both a good racehorse and a good horse.
Eclipse was closely related to New York’s conversion to horsepower—improved roads and the adoption of horse farming, and thus a huge increase in the proportion of New Yorkers who had horses in their lives. Eclipse descended from New York’s best line of trotting horses, and his owner was a horse dealer. He sired road horses for two years, he appeared at cattle shows, and he was surrounded by newspapers, a racing association, and agricultural societies that talked of improving the general run of horses. When southerners attacked his pedigree, New Yorkers defended him in the language of progress, utility, and agricultural reform.
American Eclipse was an artifact of “improvement.” He was simultaneously a crafted, useful material object, an emblem of progress, the focus of new kinds of risk, play, and public spectacle, and an affront to the South. In short, he (literally) embodied much of what was happening in New York in the 1820s.