“Many persons determined to see the race, were compelled to walk, as they did, under a burning sun, four miles and a half.” — Spirit of the Times, 8 April 1837
At the same time that he was Postmaster of Big Lick in 1831, twenty-one-year-old Yelverton N. Oliver was co-proprietor of the race track at Liberty, Virginia. By 1833, he was serving as treasurer of the newly formed Jockey Club and proprietor of the course at Lynchberg. And the next year Oliver was in Washington, reviving the city’s track.
It was following the close of the National Jockey Club’s 1836 fall meeting over the Washington Race Course when Captain Oliver descended upon New Orleans. Oliver seized an opportunity to establish a course and Jockey Club that would spark the renewal of racing–a rebirth of the sport, the potential of which had never been fully realized in the burgeoning port city despite the sporadic presence of a Jockey Club for almost two decades.
Oliver leased land to build his Eclipse Course in the new village of Carrollton, located on the old Macarty Plantation five miles upriver from New Orleans. Carrollton had been created just three years earlier when its owners subdivided the land in 1833–one of these owners being former District Attorney John Slidell, who would go on to be elected in January 1837 as vice president and line judge for the city’s new Jockey Club.
For the construction of his race course, Oliver was the first proprietor anywhere to blend sand with soil, creating such a fast track that the legitimacy of speed records over the Eclipse would often be questioned. “The objections to racing heretofore in this vicinity will now be entirely remedied,” he declared, “as the track will be covered with sand and sawdust, rendering it good in any weather, and at all times free from mud or water.”
Louisianians enthusiastically backed Oliver’s ambitious endeavor to rejuvenate the languishing sport in New Orleans. The spirited Captain had “cast the seed of enterprise upon the rich alluvial soil of Louisiana,” a turfman from Plaquemine wrote to the Spirit of the Times; “he will not only succeed, but will confer a lasting benefit upon the country, in the introduction of the finest horses and consequent improvement of the breed.”
Talk of the upcoming inaugural spring meeting–the opening day of which was delayed from Tuesday to Friday, March 17, 1837, due to heavy rain–dominated the columns of the New Orleans Picayune:
[Captain Oliver] has established among us the most rational, the most exciting amusement, and on a scale of magnificence equal to any thing in the new world.
We have received a communication from “a Father,” recommending that the schools be suspended during the races; we think the plan a good one; and for the sake of the boys we hope they may be.
The Races–the races! Who’s going to the races? Everybody–ladies and all. As to the convenience of going, nothing can be easier; just get into the Car and ride to Carrollton–the railroad is now in fine operation.
The New Orleans and Carrollton Railroad had been in operation for 18 months since the fall of 1835, established by a committee comprised of future Jockey Club members John Slidell and City Councilman Maunsel White. For a fare of 25 cents, the steamer provided transportation to the Eclipse Course for the masses [read more about the Carrollton Railroad here–Turf Times Ed.].
Even with the railcars conveying a thousand passengers each half hour to Carrollton, every horse and carriage in the city was in operation, and loaded with passengers who “over-sized their pile,” intent to arrive on time for the races that commenced at 1 o’clock. “Many persons determined to see the race, were compelled to walk, as they did, under a burning sun, four miles and a half,” the Spirit of the Times reported; “no joke, bye the bye, though it shows the interest the races have excited in the citizens of New Orleans.”
More than 10,000 spectators were estimated to be at the Eclipse Course on opening day for the $500 Jockey Club Purse. A field of eight was entered for the race of one-mile heats; with odds of four to one, bets of $500-$1,000 were placed on the favorite, Colonel Adam L. Bingaman’s four-year-old Leviathan filly, Angora.
Bingaman had acquired Angora for his Natchez, Mississippi stable following her loss the previous fall in a $5,000 four-mile match race, which had pitted the Tennessee filly against Kentucky’s Rodolph, a five-year-old horse by Sir Archy Montorio out of Transport. Since being distanced in the four-miler, Angora had succeeded in routing her opponents in two Mississippi races, and walked over in a third.
Four of the entries for the Jockey Club purse were second or third generation offspring of Sir Archy, “The Godolphin of America,” including Captain Oliver’s three-year-old colt Richard of York; three-year-old filly Wings, of Thomas J. Wells’ Alexandria, Louisiana stables; James Garrison’s five-year-old horse Bremo from Virginia; and J.M. Smith’s five-year-old mare Wingfoot. Also entered was George Merrick’s four-year-old gelding John Randolph, G. Thompson’s three-year-old colt by Sir Charles and the Leviathan filly Annot Lyle, who was drawn on race day.
While the racers were “promenading the picketed area for a few minutes”–the forerunner to the paddock–the two Virginia horses, Oliver’s Richard of York and Garrison’s Bremo, were looking less than fit for the race. “They have not got over their long jaunt from the ‘Old Dominion,’” the Spirit of the Times noted. “Northern horses running here in March, ought to leave the North the previous June, so as to get acclimated.”
Track conditions were heavy due to the delaying rainfall. At the signal the field was off for the first heat, and Bremo went to the lead, joined by Angora. “For the first half mile, the contest was exciting, but Angora eventually got the pole,” the Spirit of the Times reported, Bremo having weakened to fourth. The Sir Archy filly and mare, Wings and Wingfoot, dueled for second and third, “both of them evinced the true blood,” though the filly prevailed, coming in ahead of Wingfoot. Richard of York and John Randolph finished fifth and sixth respectively, and the Sir Charles colt was distanced. Time, 2 m. 1 s.
Angora remained the favorite for the second heat. The Leviathan filly grabbed the lead at the start, Wings following in second. The Virginia colt Richard of York came to life in this heat, and made his move to battle up front with the favorite. His thrilling duel with the redoubtable filly was short lived, however, as Angora held him off, the colt tiring and falling back. “Amidst the shouts of friends,” Angora sailed home first to win the race, time, 1 min. 59s.
“Angora’s success here, and at the last Natchez meeting, entirely removes the unfavorable opinion caused by her defeat by Rodolph at Louisville,” the Spirit of the Times remarked. “The Leviathans have now most certainly proved themselves the fleetest, and the best mile and two mile horses in the Southern country, beating everything they have contended against at these distances.”
As for opening day over the Eclipse Course, although gate receipts remain unknown, from all appearances Captain Oliver’s effort to resurrect the sport in New Orleans was a smashing success; that evening, the Captain was reported to have sent into the city “Three Barrels and a half of Dollars!”
Read Part II of this series here: A Toast to Bumper, the Best Winded, the Fleetest Horse of All
According to Gerald Hammond’s The Language of Horse Racing, the term paddock, a “turf enclosure near the racecourse, where the horses and jockeys are assembled in preparation for a race” was first used in 1862, hence this report referenced the “picketed area.”