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Lexington, the Racehorse

A racehorse named Lexington (1850-1875) was the most famous Thoroughbred in the country in the 1800s. Lexington won six of his seven races before he had to retire in 1855 due to failing eyesight. Though blind, he became famous as a sire at Woodford Stud.

Three years after his death, his skeleton was disinterred and exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution, where it remained for decades. In the 1980s, Lucy Breathitt, wife of Gov. Ned Breathitt, began efforts to have Lexington brought back home.

“I don’t think it ever left our mind, that, wouldn’t this be wonderful if we could get him back down here?” said Bill Cooke, director of the International Museum of the Horse.

When the museum became an affiliate of the Smithsonian, it renewed efforts to have Lexington brought here. Once approval was given, conservators had to inspect the skeleton to make sure it was ready for travel.

In 2010, Lexington returned home. “He arrived here in time for the World Equestrian Games. We were thrilled. The response, I mean, has been wonderful,” Cooke said.

Edward L. Bowen, turf historian, said Lexington was bred by Dr. Elisha Warfield, a Maryland native who was studying medicine at Transylvania University. Lexington’s first start was at the Kentucky Association track in Lexington.

In his two-year racing career, Lexington won six of his seven races, losing only to LeComte.

Lexington may be most famous not for a race against another horse, but against the clock. A race with LeComte had been set, but LeComte was unable to race. So Lexington was brought out to see if he could surpass LeComte’s record for the four-mile race.

He did so, running four miles in 7 minutes, 19.75 seconds, a record for speed that stood for 20 years.

Lexington was blind in one eye and losing vision in his other eye, so he was retired to stud at Woodford Stud. He was the leading sire each year from 1861 to 1874, and again in 1876 and 1878. “No stallion anywhere in the world has ever matched that,” Bowen said.

Lexington’s offspring won over 1,100 races and earned over $1.1 million, “which in those days was remarkable,” Bowen said.

Lexington is also famous today in a new light as the blue horse icon used by VisitLEX.

Lexington was the subject of a famous painting in the 1800s by Edward Troye. “We thought this would be so fantastic if we could take this actual portrait and work with it. The New York Jockey Club owned the rights to the Edward Troye painting and we reached out to them and they were very willing to work with us,” said Mary Quinn Ramer, president of VisitLEX. “We have actually trademarked that portrait, but with the blue horse version.”

Cooke said Lexington’s career on the track and at stud has a great deal to do with the city’s prominence today in the horse breeding industry. “Lexington today is Lexington today because of Lexington the horse in the nineteenth century,” he said.

This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2218, which originally aired on May 20, 2017. Watch the full episode.