The G3 Lecomte Stakes for 3-year-old colts, slated to be run January 22 at a distance of 1 1/16 miles, typically kicks off the Road to the Kentucky Derby series of races at the historic Fair Grounds Race Course. Yet this season the track instituted in December the new Gun Runner Stakes for 2-year-old colts, as well as the Untapable Stakes for 2-year-old fillies for Kentucky Oaks points—the Road to the Derby is already in full swing in New Orleans.
This year marks the 78th running of the Lecomte Stakes, which memorializes the great 19th-century Louisiana champion and the only horse to ever beat the mighty Lexington. This named race was originally contested for years as the Lecomte Handicap for older horses. Following the race’s 1950 edition, New Orleans journalist and historian Charles “Pie” Dufour wrote about its namesake Thoroughbred and the two-year rivalry of 1854—1855 between him and Lexington in his “Pie Dufour’s A La Mode” column for the Times-Picayune in February 1950:
“Just to bring you up to date on what a horse race meant in those fabulous times, let me tell you it was no sissy six furlongs or a mile and a quarter that the horses ran. A race back there meant something to show whether a horse had stamina and courage as well as speed. It was, please pardon the allusion, like a wrestling match, two best falls out of three.”
Two winning heats crowned the winner, and with the top division distance of the antebellum period being four miles, this required horses competing at this level, including Lecomte and Lexington, to run an astounding eight miles at minimum in a given four-mile race–but most commonly they ran 12 miles or more if three or more heats were run. Some horses competed at both the three- and four-mile distance, considering that the three-mile series often required running nine miles in three heats.
During the mid-20th century, Hawthorne Race Course and Churchill Downs held sprint races called the Lecomte. “Prop Triumphs in Stretch Drive,” stated an Associated Press headline, and the horse “put on his specialty to win the Lecomte purse” in the 6-furlong race at Hawthorne in September 1950. The horse was owned by Texas oilman Eugene Constantin Jr., whose colt Royal Bay Gem finished fourth in the 1953 Derby and third in both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
A Churchill crowd of 6,500 spectators watched this track’s Lecomte sprint in 83-degree heat in late October 1950. “Streaking, owned by J.D. Weil, of Chicago, won the $2,200 Lecomte Purse, the feature at Churchill Downs,” reported Louisiana’s Monroe News-Star. The winner of the 6-furlong race for 2-year-olds was the gray gelded son of Pharamond II, the English stallion imported by Keeneland Founder and President Hal Price Headley to stand at his Beaumont Farm. “The winner paid the shortest price of the Downs fall meeting, $2.60, $2.40 and $2.20 through the board.”
For more historical racing news for January—including more about Lecomte—read our 2021 post here, which also features an “On This Race Day in 1852” story.