Among its many claims to fame, New Orleans has never listed the breeding of thoroughbreds, yet the Louisiana city's interest in bloodlines and the differences of opinion they engender dates back to early in the 19th century. Those differences reached a fever pitch one day in April 1854, when the turf champions of Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky and Alabama were brought together at Metairie, a sleepy town on the outskirts of New Orleans, for the $20,000 Great State Post Stakes.
What made this event remarkable from today's point of view was the fact that the winner was to be decided in the best two of three four-mile heats. What made it remarkable in that day was the fact that three of the four champions present—Arrow, representing Louisiana; Lexington, representing Kentucky; and Lecomte, representing Mississippi—were all sired by a single famed stallion: Boston. The Alabama entry, Highlander, was thus a rank outsider from a family point of view. Nevertheless, as an estimated 10,000 railbirds swept into the city for the great event, a quick show of Alabama money made Highlander the early favorite though the odds soon shifted to Lexington.
By the afternoon of the race, according to the New Orleans Daily Picayune, the city itself "looked as though it had been shut down" as everyone streamed out to the track. A fair estimate was that 20,000 fans, including ex-President Millard Fillmore, jammed into the enclosure, breaking down one of the fences. Some men—and ladies too—climbed trees for a better view.
Exactly at 3:30 the four horses trotted up to the starting line of a track that was as soft and wet as gumbo soup. With mud flying and splattering many of the infield patrons, the Kentucky horse got off to an early lead and held on to beat Lecomte across the finish line by three lengths.
During a 60-minute breather that followed, the odds put Lexington 2-to-1 against the field. A Mississippi group, the Red River Party, impressed with Lecomte's performance, took some of this action and for a while looked good, as their horse, running gamely, led for three miles. On the backstretch, however, the Kentucky champion closed the gap and locked Lecomte as the two swung for home side by side. "Down they came," said the Picayune, "rushing forward like a torrent, each at the top of his speed, but the speed of Lexington was superior, and he shot past the judge's stand four lengths in advance."
As it developed, the Great State Post Stakes was the start of an epic—though brief—chapter in American turf history. Lecomte's backers refused to concede Kentucky superiority and dismissed Lexington as nothing more than a superior mudder. Sure enough, a week later, over the same course—but under fast conditions—Lecomte turned the tables on his half brother, winning the first fourmile heat in 7:26 and the second in 7:38¾. The 7:26 clocking was an American record for four miles and thus helped set the stage for a final act to the drama.
Within a month after his colt's defeat, Kentucky Owner Richard Ten Broeck issued this challenge, "As Lexington will probably follow the Fashion in making a Foreign Tour, I propose the following as his valedictory: I will run him four miles over the Metairie Course ... against the fastest time at four miles that has been run in America, for the sum of TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS."
Two Virginia sportsmen accepted the offer and, with two colts, Joe Blackburn and Arrow alternating as pacers, Lexington and Jockey Gilbert W. Patrick (packing 103 pounds) set their sights on Lecomte's 7:26. On April 2,1855 they went off. For the first two miles Joe Blackburn gave chase but, said one correspondent, "He was never near enough for Lexington to hear the sound of his hoofs." Lexington zipped the first mile in 1:47¼, slowing to a 1:52¼ for the second lap. At this point Arrow took over, pushing Lexington to a third mile in 1:51½, whereupon Joe Blackburn returned and, even though he was "like chips in porridge—of no benefit," Lexington closed with a splendid 1:48¾, giving him a new American record of 7:19¾, despite the near loss of his left foreplate and part of his right one during the race.
In view of what the New Orleans press called "a monumental feat," Lecomte's owner challenged Lexington to a head-and-head "rubber" match, which a willing Metairie Jockey Club arranged for April 14. Judging from the newspapers, mounting pressure became unbearable, "exceeding the anticipation of the 1854 races."
Since many well-heeled Louisiana sportsmen had adopted Lexington, while others felt a strong attachment for Lecomte, who was weaned in Louisiana after being foaled in Kentucky, the seriousness of the betting was reflected by a report in the Daily Delta: "Some plantations will change hands." Some did. Even women got into the act. Ladies who had watched husbands bet themselves into debt the year before, wagered their own gloves, fans and bracelets.
Because Lexington had been paced and given a running start, Lecomte backers were not overawed by their rival's stunning 7:19, a fact reflected in the race-day odds in which you had to put up $100 to win $90 on Lexington or put up $90 to win $100 on Lecomte.
Following a drummer's start, the overflow crowd of close to 20,000 went wild as the two horses ran side by side for three miles. As they passed the stands for the final lap, Lexington pulled off to a two-length lead and widened this advantage in the backstretch. On the turn for home, Lecomte made a gallant closing rally, but Lexington held him safe to win comfortably in 7:23¾. That was all the running for the day. Lecomte's owner asked permission to withdraw his colt from further heats so as not to endanger his racing future.
Wrote the breathless turf expert of the Daily Picayune: "The long agony is over—the contest is ended—the race is run!"
Shortly after the race, Lexington's eyes became afflicted and he was retired to stud. He died totally blind at the age of 25, and today his skeleton is on display at The Smithsonian Institution. And the Metairie Course? After the Civil War its owner, Charles T. Howard, president of the New Orleans Racing Association, promised "drastic action" if the state legislature outlawed lotteries as it threatened. When the legislature did just that, Howard kept his word, and in 1872 the old racetrack became a cemetery.