“The public may probably never have it in their power again to witness such sport!” Captain Yelverton N. Oliver
It was a landmark day for racing in the United States, for this was a Sunday–and the first occasion for a Jockey Club anywhere to hold a contest on the Sabbath. But this was New Orleans, and Sunday was regarded as a day of recreation; continuing the Jockey Club’s six-day race meeting over this Sunday of March 19, 1837, wasn’t considered indecent in the least.
Since opening day on Friday, record daily attendance topping 10,000 spectators thronged the newly established Eclipse Course in the town of Carrollton, located just four and a half miles upriver from the city by railroad. “The gay Orleanois turned out en masse to swell the concourse,” wrote the Spirit of the Times, “and the lovely belles of that queenly city, radiant with beauty and delight, lent a most inspiriting and seductive influence to the manly and gallant sports of the Turf.”
The proprietor of the Eclipse Course, Captain Yelverton N. Oliver of Virginia, covered his new dirt track with sand and sawdust to repel water, touting it as “one of the safest and quickest in the Union.” Turfites from across Louisiana (from St. Francisville, Alexandria and Attakapas) as well as the states of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia–even as far away as the Old Dominion of Virginia–brought their stables of distinction to New Orleans, amassing “the greatest number of race horses and of greater celebrity than has ever been seen on any race course in the South,” Oliver declared in his advertisement. “The public may probably never have it in their power again to witness such sport(!).”
Although he was not the favorite for the three-mile, $1,000 Proprietor’s Purse held on Sunday, it was the colt of Virginia turfman James S. Garrison, Esq., that generated the most interest for the race, noted the Spirit of the Times. Bumper, the four-year-old chestnut by John Richards, dam by Sir Hal, had traveled this far “to meet the ‘cracks’ of the Valley of the Mississippi, and the ‘race horse regions’ of the South and West.” Despite the arduous journey that left the colt stiff in one leg, “his fiery eye and dilated nostril was ‘a caution’ to many parties inclined to be ‘sweet’ upon their favorites,” a field of three other fillies.
Each of the fillies was the get of the leading sire Leviathan, imported in 1830 to Tennessee: the four-year-old favorite Extio from Alexandria, a chestnut out of White Feathers by Conqueror, with jockey in Thomas J. Wells’ blue and red colors; Naked Truth, a gray four-year-old filly out of a Pacolet mare, with rider in the harlequin and blue dress of owner Colonel Adam L. Bingaman from Natchez, Mississippi; and the lone three-year-old, Parele (Miss) Blevins, a chestnut out of dam Sally Magee, with jockey wearing the red and black colors of Alabama owner P.B. Starke.
The colt had the inside of the track for the first heat, with Miss Blevins, Extio and Naked Truth positioned to the outside. At the tap of the drum the field was off, and Bumper quickly took the lead. Naked Truth stayed with him for more than a furlong, but began to tire and dropped back as Extio made her run at the leader. After Bumper succeeded in also holding off the favorite, it was the third filly’s turn to make a move.
Miss Blevins had been lingering at the back of the pack, but she soon came to life and moved into second. “A beautiful filly as she is,” wrote the Spirit of the Times, “it was hardly the ‘genteel thing’ in Bumper to have taken no notice of her–but he did not, and she in turn gave him up, disgusted at the coldness of the Northern temperament.”
Extio again took up the chase, attempting to “try the effect of her charming foot and ankle upon ‘the great bear,’ but he was proof against all her enticements, and shook her off with the rest.” The colt crossed the finish line at a blazing pace under no threat by the favorite, with Miss Blevins finishing third, and Naked Truth, last.
Bets were quickly changed to Bumper, with odds of 3 to 2. The winning colt, however, was seized with cramps during the rest break between heats. Garrison considered withdrawing him; but as Bumper’s soreness during the first heat had improved upon warming up, the turfman trusted a similar outcome, and decided to let him run in the second heat.
Again the field was off at the signal, and Extio snatched the lead. Just as Bumper’s backers had feared, he lagged behind the three fillies. By the end of the first mile, spectators were lamenting about the languishing colt–was it possible that Bumper might even be distanced?
“Twig Bumper–how the rest leave him,” someone commented about the favorite.
“They ought to give him a tow-line,” another spectator said.
“What’s the use–he can’t run,” said a dispirited fan.
“Adieu, Bompare,” a Frenchman bid the colt in final farewell, “you have got what dey call de leave to stay behind.”
The colt may have been saving his strength, for he had not yet given up the battle. He lengthened his stride during the second mile and made up significant ground, passing both Miss Blevins and Naked Truth “as if they stood still,” reported the Spirit of the Times.
In the third mile he sailed past Extio, and with a length to spare, Bumper was within reach of certain victory, when his rider “turned hee’s over head” off the colt, somersaulting into the air!
The riderless Bumper, “noble soul, cast one look at his fallen friend,” recounted the New Orleans Picayune. The colt then “started on his own account, and if coming out first entitled him to the money he would have received it–but alas! The rules of the course decreed otherwise, and Bumper, the best winded, the fleetest horse of all that entered was declared distanced.”
Bumper crossed the finish line first with a time of 6 minutes 14 seconds, one second more than his winning time in the first heat; but without carrying his full weight to the scales, he was ineligible to compete in the remaining heats. While The Picayune reported that a broken stirrup had caused the jockey’s fall, the Spirit of the Times asserted that the boy, just recovering from recent illness, had fainted off of the horse in the final furlong!
Miss Blevins, meanwhile, was so far back from the field that she was “behind the light house,” and declared distanced. With Bumper’s disqualification, the winner of the second heat was Extio, and the odds were then two-to-one in favor of this Wells filly.
The final two heats were closely contested by the two remaining fillies. But Colonel Bingaman’s Naked Truth, noted as “a clumsy looking creature, and slow withal,” by The Picayune, won both in times of 6:26 and 6:32, respectively. “What she lacks in speed she makes up in bottom,” The Picayune affirmed about the gray filly.
Naked Truth’s victory was no surprise to her staunch supporters, however–particularly a “Dismal Swamp looking Mississippian,” who put up everything he had on her, swearing he “had seen Naked Truth run ‘five hours on a stretch’ at Natchez.”
As for Bumper, “the best winded, the fleetest horse of all,” a committee of the Jockey Club took up a collection for a service of plate, to be presented to James Garrison as a declaration of sympathy for the colt’s unfortunate accident, and to recognize the Virginian for his competitive zeal on the turf. A pair of silver pitchers, with Bumper engraved upon them, was awarded to Garrison following the close of race week, accompanied by a letter from the committee, an excerpt of which follows:
The spirit of enterprise which induced you to come from such a distance to participate in our amusements, and to add to them by the fine stable of horses, which under very disadvantageous circumstances you liberally run for our amusement, has excited a general feeling of approbation; and the sympathy felt and expressed by all present (a sympathy extending even to your own opponents in the contest) when accident snatched from one of your horses a victory to all appearance within his reach, will, we trust, convince you, that although Louisiana is quite young in her patronage of this noble and manly amusement, she enters into it with those feelings which can alone render it useful and honorable.
When you return to your native State, and are dispensing at your board the hospitality, which as a Virginian and liberal sportsman, we are sure always graces it, we trust that in filling the Pitchers we now present you, you will not fail to remember the merit of a Bumper.*
We are respectfully, your ob’t. servants,
[*“Bumper” was most frequently in usage during the 17th-19th centuries to reference a full glass, especially when raised in a toast–Editor]
James Garrison responded with a letter to the Club’s committee, excerpted as follows:
I have forwarded these tokens of your kindness to my domicile in Virginia, where I will cherish them through life, and hand them to my posterity: and when withdrawn from the turf and the active scenes of life, by that inevitable destiny which awaits us all, I trust these testimonials will be preserved and cherished.
Gentlemen–I hope another season to return to your city, and I shall endeavor to sustain the character of the turf, and to contribute to your entertainment; and I know, through your highminded and honorable feelings and gentlemanly conduct, the New Orleans turf will perpetuate the exalted character which is so evident in her early career.
On your visiting Virginia, I trust you will remember me–that you will call on me–and you will find a friend, ever ready to aid you, and prepared to serve you with a “Bumper.”
I am, with much consideration, your ob’t. servant,
James S. Garrison
Read Part III. of the series here: Ode to a Swift Nag: Day Four, New Orleans Jockey Club 1837 Spring Races