Lexington: The Horse That Put the City on the Map

Lexington's skeleton stands before a copy of his portrait by Edward Troye. Courtesy Kentucky Horse Park

Lexington’s skeleton stands before a copy of his portrait by Edward Troye. Courtesy Kentucky Horse Park

One of the most unusual Bluegrass treasures in the Kentucky Horse Park’s International Museum of the Horse (IMH) is the skeleton of Lexington, one of the greatest Thoroughbred sires of the 19th century. Born in 1850 just a few miles from what is now the horse park, the little bay was originally named Darley by his owner/breeder, Dr. Elisha Warfield. He won his first two races under that name before new owners changed it to Lexington, in honor of the horse’s birthplace.

A son of the legendary sire, Boston, Lexington only raced two years before his eyesight failed and he was retired to stud. But he had won six of his seven starts, often in record time, proving himself the fastest racehorse of his era.

Standing at Woodburn Farm on Old Frankfort Pike, Lexington held the title of leading sire in North America for 16 years, which is still a record. He produced a long list of winners and famous offspring such as Preakness, for whom the Preakness Stakes is named. His sons and daughters won nine of the first 15 runnings of the Travers Stakes and three Preakness Stakes.

During the Civil War, the 15-year-old, completely blind Lexington was hidden in Illinois to avoid his being conscripted as a cavalry mount. That was the only time he left Woodburn, except for an appearance at the 1859 Great St. Louis Fair.

After his death in 1875, Lexington was buried at Woodburn, but later exhumed and donated to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. In 2010, IMH Director Bill Cooke succeeded in bringing Lexington’s skeleton home and giving it pride of place in the museum—just as the world flocked to the horse park for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Lexington’s articulated bones occupy a case in front of a life-sized print of his famous portrait by Edward Troye.

“Having Lexington back in his home state is so important,” says Cooke. “He was largely responsible for the city becoming the horse capital of the country, if not the world.”

As you visit local landmarks, you’ll find many connections to the horse, Lexington, including the fine bronze statue of him in Thoroughbred Park downtown. Oh, the big blue horse icon you see everywhere? That’s Lexington, too.

About Dale Leatherman

In the course of her life she has exercised racehorses at New York’s Belmont Park, showed jumping horses on the A Circuit, driven a race car with the late Paul Newman and played the world’s most famous golf courses.