Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/O'Kelly, Dennis

O'KELLY, DENNIS (1720?–1787), owner of racehorses, born in Ireland about 1720, was brother of a cobbler. He came to England, when young, as a chairman. His strength and presence of mind attracted a lady of high position, but the liaison came to an early end. O'Kelly was again thrown upon the world, and made his livelihood as a billiard and tennis marker. He seems to have bettered his fortunes by a permanent connection with a noted courtesan, Charlotte Hayes, who afterwards became his wife. His first important step towards wealth was the purchase of the racehorse Eclipse. This horse, foaled in 1764, was bought when one year old after the death of his breeder, the Duke of Cumberland, by a cattle salesman named Wildman, for seventy-five guineas.

Before the horse ran, O'Kelly acquired a share in him for the sum of 650 guineas, a vast price in those days for an untried horse. It was on the occasion of Eclipse's first race, the Queen's Plate at Winchester, that, over the second heat, O'Kelly made his famous bet of placing the horses in order, which he won by running Eclipse first and the rest nowhere. In heat races a flag was dropped when the winner passed the post, and all horses that were not within 240 yards of the post were ignored by the judge and were ineligible to start in another heat. Not long after O'Kelly became the sole owner of Eclipse for a further sum of eleven hundred guineas. In those days all the valuable sweepstakes at Newmarket were confined to members of the Jockey Club, and Eclipse's reputation made it impossible to match him for money. Consequently O'Kelly's profits from him must have been derived more from his value as a sire than from his winnings. In July 1774 he bought Scaramouch (by Snap) at the sale of the Duke of Kingston's stud. In 1788 the Prince of Wales won a Jockey Club plate with Gunpowder, which he had bought of O'Kelly. O'Kelly improved his social position by obtaining a commission in the Middlesex militia, in which he was successively captain, major, and colonel. He bought a country house, Clay Hill, at Epsom, and subsequently the famous estate of Cannons, near Edgware, previously the property of the Duke of Chandos.

O'Kelly was additionally famous in his day as the owner of a talking parrot, which whistled the 104th Psalm, and was among parrots what Eclipse was among racehorses. O'Kelly is described by a contemporary as ‘a short, thick-set, dark, harsh-visaged, and ruffian-looking fellow,’ yet with ‘the ease, the agremens, the manners of a gentleman, and the attractive quaintness of a humourist.’ He evidently showed no wish to turn his back on his poor relations, and it is to his credit that, although a professional gamester, he would never allow play at his own table. But he is said to have held post-obits to the amount of 20,000l. from Lord Belfast. He died at his house in Piccadilly on 28 Dec. 1787.

Eclipse, his colt Dungannon, and a number of mares, were left to O'Kelly's brother to be carried on as a breeding stud. The rest of the property went to a nephew, who became a member of the Jockey Club, and ran Cardock for a Jockey Club plate in 1793. O'Kelly was determined that his property should not go as it had come; and, acting on the same principle as another noted gamester, Lord Chesterfield, he inserted a clause in his will that his heir should forfeit 400l. for every wager that he made.

[A Genuine Memoir of Dennis O'Kelly, London, 1788; Gent. Mag. 1787, pt. ii. p. 1196; Scott's Sportsman's Repository; Black's Jockey Club and its Founders, 1891, passim.]

J. A. D.