Feature Story: Lecomte and an Epic Antebellum Rivalry

Every January at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, a promising young group of horses heads postward in the Grade III Lecomte Stakes. These are the newly-turned 3-year-olds of a fresh Triple Crown season, and the Lecomte serves as their initial proving ground. Perhaps one of these starters, decades down the road, will be remembered with the same respect granted this race’s namesake – a brilliant chestnut runner whose heralded career ended in untimely demise.

It was here in old New Orleans that the colt they called Lecomte first dashed to victory. Small and sinewy with a white hind leg and a lithe way of going, he was foaled in 1850 out of the great broodmare Reel, whose bloodlines may be traced to modern runners like 1988 Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors. He was a son of leading sire Boston, who later joined the inaugural class of the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame, and was gifted with smooth and easy action; the long stride of a stayer coupled with a sprinter’s starting power.

“His temper is excellent; he is easily placed in a race… he never tears himself and his jockey to pieces by attempting to run away,” read Spirit of the Times in 1856. “…He has all the good points and qualities of both sire and dam without their defects; consequently, he is about as fine a specimen of a thoroughbred as can be found in this or any other country.”

But Lecomte’s story provides much more than a fine runner’s tale. It is a classic tangle of North and South, of old money bluebloods battling ambitious entrepreneurs. And from the best Thoroughbreds each side had to offer came a rivalry that would ignite the Louisiana racing world. 

Southern Scion

Old stories tell us that Lecomte, owned by Thomas Jefferson Wells, was named after master cotton planter Ambrose LeComte II. The young man’s sprawling Magnolia Plantation encompassed more than 5,000 acres and he was good friends with Wells, a sugar planter whose Dentley Plantation was of similar prominence.

The Wells brothers were known throughout the land, and stories of their exploits traveled far and wide. A middle brother, Monfort, was a state senator from 1824-1826 and a brigadier General in the Louisiana Militia. The youngest, James Madison, was Louisiana Governor from 1865-1867. The oldest, William Rudolph, died at the Alamo with James Bowie in 1836.

Wells himself, born in 1806, was one of the backup fighters at the famous 1827 “Vidalia sandbar knife fight,” in which he defended Bowie by shooting a man who attacked him. In fact, the brawl for which Bowie became famous actually broke out following a duel that involved the Wells brothers and a Dr. Thomas Maddoux, who had infuriated his opponents by making public some private information about one of his patients – their sister.

Wells settled down from his dueling days after taking a shot in the arm or two. Educated at Kentucky’s Transylvania University, he devoted his attention to politics and served a representative of the Louisiana legislature from 1841-1843. He wielded a powerful influence over the area for many years, but his main passion was breeding and campaigning fine racehorses and he built an exceptional oval on the grounds of Dentley. Often, when not leading a charge of mounted gentlemen on spirited bear and deer hunts across the massive estate, he could be found there overseeing the development of his top Thoroughbreds.

It was at Dentley that Lecomte began to show promise under the care of a particularly talented black trainer named Harkness. He made his first appearance as a 2-year-old on the Metairie Course near New Orleans on April 5, 1853, when he won two heats in a sweepstakes worth $3,300 (about $93,300 in today’s currency). In November he ran in Natchez, Mississippi, where he again won two heats. He raced three times in January of 1854 and was victorious on all counts. He seemed to be everything Wells ever dreamed of producing and was lauded by many as the fastest racehorse in North America. But the swift-footed runner and his genteel owner were about to meet a most formidable match.       

The Yankee Makes His Mark

Richard Ten Broeck, born in Albany, New York in 1812, was a very different sort compared to Wells. Fiercely independent and somewhat of a rapscallion in his younger days, he came down from the North after an unsuccessful stint at West Point Military Academy that began in 1829 and ended the next year when, as one writer put it, “Unable to repress his wild propensities, he left in disgrace.” When Wells was developing Dentley and immersed in Louisiana politics, Ten Broeck traveled the Mississippi as a gambling man, building a cardshark’s reputation and beginning increasingly serious forays into the sport of racing.

Yet Wells and Ten Broeck shared several traits in common. Each possessed an affinity for fine Thoroughbreds, each exhibited a fiercely competitive side. Although Ten Broeck was not known for actual dueling, author John Dizikes noted, “… the dramatic pattern of (his) life was that of the outsider, alone, pitting his judgment and nerve against everybody else’s in duels in which the weapons were horses.” Furthermore, while his ventures were farther-flung than Wells’ – he traveled to Canada and Cuba on various racing escapades – the Yankee found his eventual success in Louisiana when he settled down for a time during the 1840s and ’50s. It was here in 1854, thanks to Lecomte and a colt named Lexington, that his ventures finally began to pay off.

According to many historical accounts, Ten Broeck purchased Lexington, a bay son of Boston out of the mare Alice Carneal, specifically to win the Great Post Stakes – the richest and most talked-about race of the time. This is a likely theory, for the Northerner had established himself as a leading figure on the Louisiana racing scene after managing Bascombe racetrack in Mobile and the Bingaman Course across the river from New Orleans, and was now heavily promoting the Metairie Course where he held majority ownership.

The race required an entrance fee of $5,000 (nearly $130,000 in today’s currency), with the winner to be decided in the best two of three heats, each at the distance of four miles. Having seen Lexington run in his first start in May of 1853 under the name “Darley” for breeder Elisha Warfield (it was the Association Stakes, both heats of which he won handily), Ten Broeck quickly assembled a syndicate to purchase the colt. Four days after his initial victory, Lexington won the Citizens’ Stakes. He was then shipped to Natchez for training, and while there broke into a feed stall, gouged himself upon corn, and came down with a severe case of colic. This incident severely compromised his training schedule. Nevertheless, his connections took on a challenge to face the great filly Sally Waters, whom he beat in New Orleans on Dec. 2, 1853, showing himself to be one of the greatest young racehorses of the time. Such a score only heightened anticipation of the Great Post Stakes, and some 20,000 racing fans assembled at Metairie on April 1, 1854, breaking down fences and climbing trees to get a better view as champions from Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi took to the track.

It had been a particularly rainy season and the surface was a sea of stiff mud. When the Kentucky horse got off to a fast lead in the first heat to beat Lecomte by a good three lengths, his detractors claimed it was only because their chestnut did not relish the surface. Early conditions were reversed in the second heat as Lecomte broke like a shot and led for three miles, but turning for home Lexington closed the distance and again overpowered his half-brother, this time by four lengths. Wells would forever argue that Lexington got the best of his starter simply because the latter was a better mudder. It was the beginning of an epic rivalry that would last far beyond the runners’ actual campaigns.

Rivals to the End

After the Great Post Stakes, Wells determined to enter Lecomte in the Jockey Club Purse on the following Saturday. With just eight days between races, Ten Broeck’s partners wanted to give Lexington a rest. The sportsman, however, was determined to refute Wells’ claims of superiority – for the colt’s owner, wrote Spirit of the Times in 1876, “confidently predicted that he would retrieve his laurels the next time he encountered Lexington.”

Ten Broeck bought out his other syndicate members and the colt, who had already been turned out to pasture, was reshod to tackle Lecomte once again. He was sent off as the heavy favorite, but it would be Lecomte’s finest hour.

The race was run in four-mile heats. Lecomte won the first in a blazing 7:26 – an American record for the distance and a most astounding accomplishment. This was after an incident involving Lexington’s jockey, who mistakenly pulled the runner up at three miles thinking the race was over, then got back into the running too late after being urged on by the crowd. Still, Lecomte silenced many doubters by winning the second heat under completely fair circumstances – although in slower time, by a greater margin.  

“The rivalry between the half-brothers was now greater than ever,” Harper’s Magazine recounted in 1870. “Each had his partisans, and each was claimed the superior of the other.”

Ten Broeck demanded a rematch following Lexington’s loss to Lecomte, but fitting circumstances could not be agreed upon. A volley of increasingly irate exchanges were fired between the Northerner and Wells in Spirit of the Times, and the ill-feeling reached such a pitch that even years later, heated debates would break out between opposing parties on the matter.

Unable to come to terms with Wells, Ten Broeck sent Lexington back north to Long Island, where he was to run in a stakes race there. But the colt’s bridle broke in training a few days before the race, and he bruised his legs so severely when running loose that it became necessary to take him out of training. He was sent south to recover while Lecomte won the two-mile Association Purse on Nov. 15 and two days later walked over for the four-mile portion, as no runner would face him. On Dec. 5 he won the Jockey Club Purse. That would be his last start until he took on Lexington for the last time.

Negotiations still failing to produce a meeting, Ten Broeck came up with a plan to race Lexington against the clock to beat Lecomte’s record. This was done on April 2, 1855, when the colt fairly flew over the Metairie oval to finish the distance in 7:19 3/4, a time that stood 19 years until his own grandson, Fellowcraft, surpassed it by placing 7:19 ½ on the record. To save face, Wells was finally forced to agree to a third and final meeting.

The Final Match

It happened at Metairie on April 14, 1855. “When the blankets were stripped from the horses and (they)… stood glistening and flickering in the sun, the crowd ... could not resist a burst of admiration,” the New Orleans Times-Democrat reported. “At which Lecomte stepped coquettishly about, showing his beautiful chest and branching muscle, while the darker Lexington, with a sedate and intelligent aspect, looked calmly around, as if he felt that the sensation was quite expected and deserved.”

When a tap of the drum sent them off, the two were instantly locked in a head-to-head battle. Lexington eked out the lead by a nose, but Lecomte fought him stride by stride, and by the end of the first mile Ten Broeck’s runner had less than a length’s advantage. Along the backside for the second mile Lecomte had fallen back, but he made a valiant effort to overtake his rival, plunging forward until they were once again nose-to-nose.

It lasted only a moment. Lexington extended his lead to four lengths as he charged under the wire, and although Lecomte’s spirited determination kept him from a harder loss, Ten Broeck’s horse was clearly the best as his rider had all he could do to pull him up. It was Lexington’s last race. The Northerner was victorious, and Wells withdrew Lecomte from the second heat to save him from further strain.

Lecomte did not race again until Nov. 17 of that year, when he won the Association Purse at Natchez. Although he lost two heats to a horse named Arrow (who had raced in the Great Post Stakes) at Metairie on Dec. 5, he could find no one to face him for the Dec. 8 Jockey Club Purse, and thus walked over the course for the victory. It would be his final score – although he raced twice in the spring of 1856, he was beaten by a horse named Pryor (also owned by Ten Broeck) on both accounts.

End of a Rivalry, End of an Era

Details are somewhat unclear, but history tells us that Wells dispersed of much of his stock in early 1856. Perhaps he wished to devote more time to politics (he ran for governor against Thomas Overton Moore in 1859) or perhaps he could feel the rumblings of upheaval and knew that many Thoroughbreds would be conscripted to serve as army mounts (even Lexington would have to be hidden away to escape such a fate). “When the Civil War came,” read one account of the Wells family fortune, “it was all swept away as by a flood.”

Ironically, Ten Broeck purchased Lecomte for $10,000 during this dispersal, then sent him to Kentucky where Lexington had already been retired. One can imagine the acquisition would have been sweet justice for the Northerner, who planned to use the runner in his quest to develop a strong presence in England. Because the best races overseas had already been run for the season, Ten Broeck gave Lecomte a rest and stood him at stud for a brief period of time. Wells had also used the colt to cover mares between racing campaigns (these matings resulted in the eventual production of foundation sire Domino), so many of the best Thoroughbreds in America carried his bloodlines for years after he was gone.  

That is how it is best to remember the fleet-footed Thoroughbred – for once he departed to England, his career was all but over. Afflicted with an injured leg and ankle, he was at first unable to train and although he eventually entered light conditioning again, he suffered from repeated bouts of colic. In his only English start, the 3-mile Warwick Cup on Sept 8, 1857, he finished last. He died shortly thereafter, his loss referred to by the Thoroughbred Record as “one of the heaviest our breed has suffered.”

Epilogue

Although Lecomte did not find success on the European turf, several of Ten Broeck’s runners did; most notably Starke, who took the 1859 Goodwood Stakes, and Umpire, a son of Lecomte out of Lexington’s dam, who won the Goodwood Nursery. Ten Broeck found acceptance and a successful career overseas and “For several years… maintained his position among the noblemen and gentlemen of the English sporting world by pursuing a straightforward course of conduct,” according to an 1865 issue of Bailey’s Magazine of Sports and Pastimes. He died in 1892.

Wells’ life was much shorter. He passed away on Sept. 30, 1863 on a trip to Texas, where the family owned land and where many of their remaining Thoroughbreds had been taken to escape confiscation during the war. When news of his death reached New Orleans, this memorial ran on the front page of the Daily Picayune:

“One of the best-known and most popular citizens of Louisiana… died on a journey to Texas at the age of 55… (the news of which will cause) painful mention throughout the length and breadth of the state… He for many years wielded a powerful political influence… but it is not as a (political) leader or as a planter that the Colonel was most widely known. He was especially celebrated as a turfman of good old stock, who took an active part in racing for love of the sport itself.”