As late as the 1830’s, the former French and Spanish colony of Louisiana still lagged far behind in the British sport of thoroughbred racing, which had been flourishing on the East Coast for the last half-century. Even the Daily Picayune was dubious about the prospect of local racing, stating, “It was thought that the effort to establish a course in New Orleans would prove a failure.” It would be one of Les Americains—a man from the racing mecca of Virginia—who would lay the foundation for the Crescent City to become a formidable contender in the national sport.
Captain Yelverton Oliver, accomplished turfman and former proprietor of the National Jockey Club Races at Washington, D.C., reached New Orleans in 1836. He seized the opportunity to launch a course that would spark the renewal of racing, the potential of which had never been fully realized in the port city, despite its creation of a jockey club more than a decade earlier.
Oliver leased land to build his Eclipse Course in the new village of Carrollton, located on the old Macarty Plantation approximately four and one-half 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 was the former District Attorney John Slidell, who would be elected in January 1837 as vice president and line judge for the city’s new Jockey Club. An 1840s map of Carrollton and Greenville shows the location for the course being bounded by the streets of Lowerline, Levee, and present day St. Charles Avenue.
For the construction of his 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,” the Captain 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.”
Drawing tens of thousands of spectators as well as horsemen and their stables from across the country, the Eclipse Course’s opening in March 1837 galvanized the sport in New Orleans. As soon as the following spring, both the Louisiana Course and Metairie Race Course were also operating, these efforts again being led by visiting Virginia turfmen. The Eclipse would remain active for more than a decade, continuing to stage spring and fall races until it fell into disuse by late 1849; by this time, the track was no longer able to compete with two other local courses, both of which had also been managed by Capt. Oliver during the 1840’s: the new Bingaman Course across the river in Algiers, and Metairie, the city’s premiere track that would reign supreme until the Civil War.
For more on Antebellum racing, see www.antebellumturftimes.com