Thoroughbred Racing in the “City by the Bay”

Oakdale Race Track in Mobile, Alabama. c. early 1900s.

When most folks think of Thoroughbred racing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the Deep South, one city usually comes to mind—New Orleans. However, another city on the Gulf Coast shared equal popularity during this era—the “City by the Bay,” that is, Mobile, Alabama.

While New Orleans had its Metairie Race Track and the Fairgrounds (the nation’s third oldest track still in business), Mobile had the Bascombe, Arlington Fairgrounds, and Oakdale race courses.

Bascombe Race Course. In the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, a popular magazine in the antebellum era, Bascombe’s 1838 racing schedule is listed, along with the names of the various horses competing, the days when different races will be held, the purse for the winner, and so on. These were the races the publication had omitted in an earlier issue. In 1860, the course was used as an encampment for volunteer troops called “Camp Montgomery.” Nowadays, Mobile uses it to train its Mounted Police Unit.

Arlington Fairgrounds. This track was located near the Bascombe Course, on a road that followed along the Mobile Bay southward for seven miles. Called the Bay Shell Road at the time, it was paved with oyster shells and to travel on it one had to pay a toll. Arlington’s track began around the 1870s, and its use for racing continued into the early twentieth century.

Oakdale. A track in this community was also in use at the turn of the twentieth century. Some local historians consider this one to have been Mobile’s best.  

In my novel-in-progress, I use a fictional track in Spring Hill, Alabama, west of Mobile. During the antebellum era, Spring Hill was a late spring and summer refuge from yellow fever for many of Mobile’s wealthy citizens.

Bibliography

“Camp Montgomery,” Alabama Historical Quarterly 20, no. 2 (1958): 293

“Fairgrounds History Remembered in New Documentary,” Mid-City Messenger, November 18, 2014,https://midcitymessenger.com/2014/11/18/fair-grounds-history-remembered-in-new-documentary/.

“Horsing Around,” Mobile Bay Magazine 37, no. 4(2021):82.

McLaurin, Melton and Michael Thomason. Mobile: The Life and Times of a Great Southern City.  Woodland Hills, CA, 1981.

“Omissions in the Racing Calendar,” American and Turf Register and Sporting Magazine 10 (January and February, 1839): 94.

Preston, Ben C. “Mobile Alabama Nostalgia Back in the Day,” Facebook, December 23. 2016, https://www.facebook.com/groups/MobileNostalgia.

Scott, Mike. “From Horses to Corpses: How Metairie Race Course Became Metairie Cemetery,” The Times Picayune, April 12, 2017; Updated July 22, 2019https://www.nola.com/300/article_4d8f567b-5039-5e52-88b7-9e6a4331925a.html

The Great Post Stakes Race, Lecomte’s Revenge, Part Four

Photo by Tobi on Pexels.com

After Lexington won the Great Post Stakes his owner, Richard Ten Broeck and Lecomte’s owner, Thomas Jefferson Wells, had a rematch. Instead of racing each other, however, they agreed that their horses would race against the clock for four miles.

Riding Lecomte: Abe Hawkins, whom Wells obtained from Abe’s owner, Duncan Kenner.

Riding Lexington: a famous white jockey named Gilbert Kilpatrick

Race Date: April, 1855

Place: Metairie Race Course, New Orleans, Louisiana

Course conditions: dry

 Grandstands: about 10,000 spectators

When the timekeepers nodded “ready,” the starter lowered his flag, and Lecomte and Lexington galloped down the track, their hoofs thundering amidst cheers.  

Lecomte, sweating hard and breathing hard, surged ahead as Abe, fierce competitor that he was, urged him on. Wider and wider the distance between the horses stretched, Lecomte constantly in the lead till he defeated Lexington by six lengths and set a world record: seven minutes and twenty-five seconds.

Upon hearing this time announced, clapping and hurrahs rocked the grandstands. Everyone, it seemed, had gone wild.

All wasn’t lost for Lexington yet. He had one more heat. But Abe galloped Lecomte into racing history when he won it as well. Though jockeys who were slaves were seldom referred to by name, such wasn’t the case with Abe. Everyone involved in racing in this era now knew him. As for Lecomte, every January at the Fair Grounds Race Track in New Orleans a race is held in his memory—the Lecomte Stakes.

Lecomte and Lexington, half-brothers who shared the same sire, became the greatest Thoroughbreds of their era.

Sources

Mooney, Katherine. Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA and London, England, 2014.

Weldon, Nick. “From slavery to sports stardom: Abe Hawkins’ rise from a Louisiana plantation to horse-racing fame,” The Historic New Orleans Collection, January 11, 2019, https://www.hnoc.org/publications/first-draft/slavery-sports-stardom-abe-hawkins%E2%80%99s-rise-louisiana-plantation-horse-racing.

The Great Post Stakes Race, Part Three, The First Races

Photo by Gusztu00e1v Gallu00f3 on Pexels.com

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.

In 1855, LeComte and Lexington would again compete to determine which horse was the fastest.

Sources

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/

Abe Hawkins, The Antebellum South’s Greatest Jockey

When one thinks of slavery in the antebellum South, most people put slaves in two categories: domestic servants and field hands. But a third category also dominated the antebellum social landscape: horsemen. Most of the South’s horsemen who participated in Thoroughbred racing were slaves.

Thoroughbred racing was the sport in the Old South. Men and women from practically every economic strata attended the contests. And one horseman stood head and shoulders above all others in his generation. His name? Abe Hawkins. Head and shoulders metaphorically, because in reality Abe, like most jockeys, was a small man. It was reported that he could fit into a boy-size coat.

Not a photograph of Abe. I could not find one, so it may not exist.

Not much is known about his boyhood, nor do we know his exact day of birth. We do know he once belonged to Adam Bingaman, a Louisiana planter. His reputation as a fierce competitor on the track won the respect of racing enthusiasts, white and black.

In 1853, Duncan F. Kenner purchased him from Bingaman for over $2,000 and brought him to his Louisiana plantation, Ashland.

In 1854, Abe raced to fame during the Lecomte-Lexington contest held at the Metairie Race Track in New Orleans, an event I’ll discuss in a later post.

During the Civil War, as the Union army bore down on Ashland in 1862, Duncan Kenner escaped capture and Abe fled North. Here he continued racing, winning fame and fortune.

Finally, afflicted by tuberculosis, he returned to Ashland and Kenner’s nursing and care. He died in 1867, but his name and reputation on the turf lived on.

Sources:

Katherine C. Mooney, Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack (Cambridge, MA and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2014).

Nick Weldon, “From slavery to sports stardom: Abe Hawkins’ rise from a Louisiana plantation to horse-racing fame,” The Historic New Orleans Collection, January 11, 2019, https://www.hnoc.org/publications/first-draft/slavery-sports-stardom-abe-hawkins%E2%80%99s-rise-louisiana-plantation-horse-racing.