O'Kelly, Denis (‘Count’) (c.1728–1787), adventurer, professional gambler, racehorse owner and breeder, was born in Tullow, Co. Carlow, second son among two sons and two daughters of Philip O'Kelly; no other family details are known. An early biography of O'Kelly says that he was from a ‘humble, perhaps a humiliating walk of life’ (Genuine memoirs, 2), while more flattering accounts suggest that his family had been minor gentry fallen on hard times, pointing to the respectable marriages made by his sisters. By 1748 O'Kelly was working as a sedan chair carrier in London, and an affair with an unidentified lady of rank appears to have supplied him with the money to wager in the gambling salons of the city, where he mixed with high society and gambled on cards and billiards. His initial foray into professional gambling was not a success and he eventually ended up being employed as a marker at the tennis courts and billiard tables he used to frequent. Imprisoned for debt in the Fleet prison in 1757, he earned money as a tapster (someone who pours and delivers beer) and as a result was nicknamed ‘Count’ O'Kelly by the inmates, a title used afterwards in an ironic way by his detractors. While in the Fleet he met the courtesan Charlotte Hayes, who became his mistress. After their release from prison in 1760, O'Kelly, possibly bankrolled initially by Hayes, became a ‘blackleg’: a professional gambler on racehorses. He was a shrewd and scientific gambler, and by 1769 he had established himself as a man of substance, owning a stables at Epsom.
His name will be forever linked with that of Eclipse, the greatest racehorse of the eighteenth century. Always a shrewd judge of an animal, in 1769 O'Kelly paid what was then the astronomical sum of 650 guineas for a half-share in the as-yet-untested stallion. A few months later he laid one of the most famous wagers in the history of racing when he made two large bets at 6–4 and evens that he could place all five runners in the correct order in the second heat of a 50-guinea plate at Epsom. His famous bet, ‘Eclipse first and the rest nowhere’, meant that Eclipse would come home over 240 yards ahead of the next horse, resulting in all the other horses being classified as unplaced. He won his bet and a racing legend was born. O'Kelly paid 1,100 guineas for outright ownership of Eclipse and the horse went on to win eighteen recorded races, including eleven King's Plates, before being retired unbeaten due to a lack of challengers. Eclipse's last race, at Newmarket in October 1770, was a 150-guinea plate that Eclipse won at the odds of 70:1 on. Although the horse only won 2,149 guineas in prize money, O'Kelly made about 25,000 guineas from the horse at stud. Eclipse sired 344 winners of 862 races who earned 158,047 guineas in prize money. Other major winners from his stables included Pot8os, Empress, Young Eclipse, Dungannon, Gunpowder, Meteor, and King Fergus. Despite his successes, many breeders preferred to bring their mares to Sir John Moore's Herod: Tony Sweeney called this ‘a decision for which they are condemned by history, for today 95 per cent of the world's thoroughbreds trace back to Eclipse in the male line’ (Sweeney guide to the Irish turf, 271). With the advent of the classic races, O'Kelly won two of the first five Derbys with homebred colts Young Eclipse (1781) and Serjeant (1784). His stables at Clay Hill, under the management of his older brother Philip, had Eclipse and two of his sons, Dungannon and Volunteer, standing, and he kept at least fifty mares. In 1787 he bought Cannons, an impressive estate near Edgware in Middlesex, to add to Clay Hill and a house in Piccadilly, London.
O'Kelly's background meant that he was never truly accepted in higher social circles, despite the lavish entertainment and hospitality available in his residences. Depictions of him as a low-born, illiterate Irishman with ‘the broadest and most offensive brogue that his nation, perhaps, ever produced’ (Genuine memoirs, 4), have to be balanced by other descriptions of him as generous, philanthropic, and shrewd. Even accounts of his appearance range from descriptions of him as tall and broad-shouldered to his being a ‘short, thick-set, dark, harsh-visaged, and ruffian-looking fellow’, albeit with ‘the manners of a gentleman and the attractive quaintness of a humorist’ (Eclipse, 28). Two incidents in particular seem to have damaged his reputation: a drunken sexual assault on the daughter of a catholic peer in 1770 resulted in his having to make a public apology and pay £500 to charity; and the withdrawal of his horse Dungannon at the last minute from a trial with Thomas Bullock's horse Rockingham (reputedly with almost £100,000 in bets laid) resulted in his being ‘execrated in all quarters’ (Genuine memoirs, 63). He was known as ‘Colonel O’ Kelly’; his military rank is often supposed to be an affectation, but he did in fact purchase (c.1760) a commission in the Westminster regiment of the Middlesex militia, rising eventually to the rank of colonel. The regiment was widely seen, however, as being composed of upstarts anxious to improve their social standing with a military rank.
O'Kelly's continued exclusion from membership of the Jockey Club (who controlled racing) and other London clubs, was both a motivation and a source of bitterness to him. Unlike other owners, he paid jockeys an annual retainer to ride his horses in preference to others, but doubled the sum if they agreed not to ride for any Jockey Club members. Despite the fact that he made a considerable part of his fortune from betting, he never allowed gambling to take place in his own home. He also never allowed Eclipse to be beaten ‘by accident’ although it would undoubtedly have been in his interest to do so. There is no definitive evidence that he and Charlotte Hayes ever married – although she was widely known as ‘Mrs O'Kelly’ – and they had no children. He died of gout 28 December 1787 at his house in Piccadilly, London, and is buried in Whitchurch. O'Kelly's greatest legacy is his careful stewardship and husbandry of Eclipse, something for which the world of training and breeding owes him a debt of gratitude.
His chief heir was his nephew, Andrew Dennis O'Kelly (d. 1820), whom he had groomed from an early stage to be the gentleman that society would not allow him to be. O'Kelly's will stipulated that Andrew would be subject to a £500 fine every time he gambled, something he proceeded to do with impunity. Andrew continued O'Kelly's work and was elected to the Jockey Club soon after his uncle's death. Among O'Kelly's other bequests was a rather extraordinary and famous parrot that was apparently capable of singing the 104th psalm and repeating other songs it heard. This he left to Charlotte Hayes, along with an annuity for her lifetime and use of Clay Hill. The O'Kellys kept close contact with Ireland and Irish affairs; Andrew O'Kelly, who is often confused and conflated with his uncle – most notably by W. J. Fitzpatrick (qv) in his book Secret service under Pitt (1892) – was a close friend of Francis Higgins (qv) (‘the Sham Squire’) and Francis Plowden (qv). Philip Whitfield Harvey (qv), the publisher of the Freeman's Journal, was a nephew of Denis O'Kelly.