April, 1854—a delightful spring day. Metairie Race Course conditions—dry. New Orleans’s St. Charles Hotel—thronging with guests. Some 20,000 people had arrived, eager to watch a special horse race, among them former U.S. president Millard Filmore. And why not? America’s two greatest Thoroughbreds, half-brothers, were scheduled to race each other in the Great Post Stakes.
Richard Ten Broeck, the course’s primary shareholder, conceived the idea. For an entry fee of $5,000, a state could send a Thoroughbred to represent it in the competition.
By race day, only four horses participated: Arrow (Louisiana), Highlander (Alabama), Lexington (Kentucky), and Lecomte (Mississippi). Because Louisiana had Arrow, Lecomte’s Louisiana owner, Thomas Wells, entered him to represent Mississippi. Ten Broeck’s horse Lexington, Lecomte’s half-brother, represented the state where he was foaled.
Because the standard Thoroughbred racing track is one mile, these horses would run four laps in two heats with a break for a rub down in between. Lexington won the first heat, clocking just over eight minutes, but Lecomte gave Lexington a run for his money in Heat Two. For three miles, Lecomte galloped ahead of Lexington. Kentuckians attending the race fretted. Their champion, losing! It couldn’t be!
And then, Lexington got “a new set of legs,” gained on Lecomte, passed him, and defeated him by four lengths. The grandstand’s spectators went wild! Roars of approval hit the clouds.
All wasn’t lost for Thomas Wells and Lecomte, however. Wells wanted revenge. To get it required two famous horsemen, both slaves. A trainer named Hark and the famed jockey, Abe Hawkins.
Mooney, Katherine. Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA and London, England, 2014
Perrault, Matthew Saul. “Jockeying for Position: Horse Racing in New Orleans,1865-1920,” LSU Digital Commons,Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College, 2016. https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/gradschool_theses/3455/