If a modern-day horse racing fan were transported back in time 160 years, they might hardly recognize the sport. Thoroughbreds weren’t as fast back then, but they ran longer distances and could do so multiple times per day. The six-furlong sprints of today were nowhere to be found; instead, the biggest races were usually held over four miles with multiple “heats” in a single day. In other words, the winner was usually the first to win two heats, which required them to run at least eight miles a day.
One of the all-time greatest “four-milers” was a horse named Lecomte. Born in 1851 and based in Louisiana, Lecomte was a son of Boston and was perhaps best known for his rivalry with Lexington, another son of Boston that is renowned to this day as one of the greatest Thoroughbred sires in history.
After going unbeaten in his early races, Lecomte’s first big challenge came in the Great State Post Stakes in New Orleans, where he faced Lexington and two others over a muddy track. The off track favored the proven mud-runner Lexington, who won both heats with Lecomte chasing him home, but Lecomte had a chance to turn the tables a week later over a dry track.
In the first heat, Lecomte was nothing short of sensational. He took the lead immediately after the start and recorded times of 1:53, 1:54, and 1:49 ½ for the first three miles. Lexington tried to stay with him, but Lecomte was too strong, running the final mile in 1:49 ½ for a historic final time of 7:26, shattering all known records by 6 ½ seconds. The second heat was anti-climactic, as Lecomte—hardly winded despite his record time in the first heat—ran the third mile in a record-breaking 1:46 on his way to an easy win in 7:38 ¾.
That race would prove to be Lecomte’s greatest moment, for he came down with colic a few days before his final meeting with Lexington and was then soundly beaten. Thereafter, Lecomte would only win once more before passing away in 1857 due to another case of colic.
But on that glorious day in 1854, Lecomte stood alone as the fastest horse in the history of U.S. racing. A writer in the April 10, 1854 edition of the New Orleans newspaper The Times-Picayune gave very high praise to Lecomte, stating that “we have witnessed the best race, in all respects, that was ever run… Lecomte stands proudly before the world as the best race horse ever produced on the turf.”
To honor Lecomte’s historic performance, Fair Grounds racetrack in New Orleans annually conducts the Lecomte Stakes, a prep race on the road to the Kentucky Derby. The Lecomte is the highlight of this week’s racing action, but there are a few other upcoming races as well that commemorate legends from the past. Here are a few of them:
Colonel E. R. Bradley Handicap at Fair Grounds
Although he wasn’t a real Colonel (the title was an honorary one), Edward Riley Bradley could have been a General in horse racing if the sport assigned such titles. Known for choosing names that started with the letter “B” for all his horses, Bradley dominated the Kentucky Derby during the 1920s and 1930s, winning the race four times with Behave Yourself (1921), Bubbling Over (1926), Burgoo King (1932), and Broker’s Tip (1933).
Silverbulletday Stakes at Fair Grounds
Long before Bob Baffert was renowned as the trainer of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, Baffert had a run of success during the 1990s that included two-time champion filly Silverbulletday. She won fourteen of her first sixteen races, including such prestigious events as the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and Kentucky Oaks, and even ran against colts in the Belmont Stakes. Although Silverbulletday wasn’t as brilliant toward the end of her career, her impressive early record led to her being inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 2009.
Native Dancer Stakes at Laurel Park
A rapidly-diminishing head is the only thing that kept Native Dancer from completing his career with an unbeaten 22-for-22 record. Unfortunately, that tiny margin of defeat occurred in the 1953 Kentucky Derby, which also prevented the “Grey Ghost” from being a Triple Crown winner, as he counted the Preakness and Belmont Stakes among his 17 stakes wins. Nevertheless, Native Dancer won five championships during his career (including two Horse of the Year titles) and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1963. As if to make up for his defeat in the Kentucky Derby, his name haunts the race to this day; an amazing 30 Derby winners have Native Dancer’s name in their pedigrees, including every Derby winner since 2006.
Frank Whiteley Jr. Stakes at Laurel Park
As the trainer of the immortal filly Ruffian, Frank Whiteley Jr. would be guaranteed a place in history even if Ruffian had been the only horse he’d ever trained. But during a Hall of Fame career that saw him win more than 800 races, Whiteley also trained the Horses of the Year Forego and Damascus, as well as the champion Tom Rolfe and the memorable stakes winners Honorable Miss and Buckfinder. In addition, Whiteley’s son David went on to be a successful trainer in his own right, training three champions.