Captain Yelverton N. Oliver of Virginia, who “cast the seed of enterprise upon the rich alluvial soil of Louisiana,” rejuvenated the languishing sport of thoroughbred racing in New Orleans by launching the Eclipse Course at Carrollton in March 1837. Horsemen from across Louisiana (from St. Francisville, Alexandria, and Attakapas) as well as Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Georgia—even as far away as the Old Dominion of Virginia—brought their stables of distinction to New Orleans for the track’s inaugural race meeting, amassing “the greatest number of race horses and of greater celebrity than has ever been seen on any race course in the South,” Oliver announced in an advertisement. “The public may probably never have it in their power again to witness such sport (!).”
The course’s six-day race meeting, which boasted purses as high as $2,000—rivaling those of other top national tracks—ushered in a new era for the Southern turf. Closing out the week of racing was the New Orleans Plate, a two-miler won by Antelope, a mare entered by Colonel Adam L. Bingaman of Mississippi. The New Orleans Daily Picayune remarked in its final race report, “The day will come when the Eclipse Course will be the first in the United States.” Only one year later, in April 1838, the Spirit of the Times would declare it as such, stating, “The Eclipse is the ne plus ultra of courses,”—the ultimate of race tracks.
Eclipse’s Jockey Club was the first anywhere to hold races on the Sabbath, with Sundays in New Orleans being regarded as a day of recreation. There were objections, nonetheless, by members of the Club and the general public. “It is a matter of notoriety that during his presidency of the Eclipse Jockey Club, the late lamented Judge Alexander Porter never visited the course on that day,” reported the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine. The Louisiana Association Jockey Club resolved in December 1844 that no races would be run over the Eclipse on a Sunday, “removing a very serious objection to the Sports of the Turf in Louisiana, as urged from the pulpit.”
Yet the rule was quickly broken. The next spring meeting of 1845 hosted the two-mile Carrollton Purse on Sunday, April 13; this race for $200 was won by the four-year-old colt Croton, entered by John R. Grymes, the city’s District Attorney. Later that year, however, the Club’s five-day December meeting was held at the Eclipse only from Tuesday through Saturday.
If a Sabbath ban had been in effect, again it was short-lived, for the Club ended its six-day race week in April 1846 on a Sunday—holding two races that garnered larger attendance than any other day during the spring meeting. Thoroughbred racing over the Eclipse Course continued for three more years until its last meeting of April 1849; six days of races closed with the Carrollton Purse for $250, best three-in-five of one-mile heats, with the five-year-old entry Ӕolus beating two fillies—on a Sunday.
For more on Antebellum racing, see www.antebellumturftimes.com