It is difficult to imagine a time when Lexington, the town, was not the center of Thoroughbred breeding in the United States. That wasn’t the case, though, until Lexington, the horse, put it on the Thoroughbred map.
As we saw in our recent column on the impact of the Civil War on breeding and racing in Kentucky, by the time the Civil War began, Kentucky had established itself as the leading Thoroughbred breeding region in the country. Until the 1850s, even though horses had been raced in Kentucky, and in Lexington, since the late 1700s, Tennessee was the top breeding ground for the best Thoroughbreds.
What changed that? The number one factor was the existence of the great racehorse and stallion Lexington. Lexington was foaled on March 17, 1850, at The Meadows, a stud farm near Lexington owned by Dr. Elisha Warfield, one of the great early breeders of Thoroughbreds.
Lexington was extraordinarily well bred himself. His sire was the great stallion Boston, who was the leading Thoroughbred sire in North America for the years 1841-43. By the time he covered Lexington’s dam, Alice Carneal, who was sired by Sarpedon, another top Nineteenth Century stallion, Boston was old, blind, and could stand only with the help of a harness. He died in 1850, before Lexington was born.
Boston was one of the greatest racehorses of his day, having been bred by Virginia attorney John Wickham, who had represented Aaron Burr in his trial for treason. He was also descended from Thoroughbred royalty: His sire was Timoleon, no slouch himself, and his grandsire was Sir Archy, the earliest American born foundation stallion. Sir Archy was foaled in 1805, and immediately became successful in winning the four-mile endurance races that were common in the early Nineteenth Century. In the days before the advent of the well-organized races of today, many races were match races, privately arranged between the owners of the runners. Sir Archy developed such a reputation as a runner that his owner sent out a challenge to all other owners in America that Sir Archy would race any horse in America, on a private wager of $10,000, an enormous sum at the time. His racing career effectively ended when there were no takers.
Sir Archy was retired to stud, standing first in Virginia, then in North Carolina. Sir Archy has been described as the Godolphin Arabian of America, a reference to one of the three foundation stallions of English Thoroughbred breeding. His offspring were so successful at the track that two jockey clubs – Washington, DC, and Maryland — banned them from competing at their tracks, a phenomenon which has not occurred since. Sir Archy was so dominant as a sire that he sired virtually every great champion American Thoroughbred up through the 1820s.
One of Sir Archy’s greatest offspring was Boston, sire of Lexington. Boston was a big chestnut colt with a famous white blaze on his nose that led some to call him Old Whitenose. Lost in a poker game as a two-year-old, then placed with a series of trainers, he proved to be equal parts brilliant speed, stamina, and trouble. In a major race in 1836, Boston ran away with the race, got far ahead of his opponents, and then stopped and sulked. I can only imagine the reaction from the bettors. Boston was sent to the stable of John Belcher, one of the top trainers of his day, and then to another trainer, identified only as “L. White,” and then back to Belcher. White reportedly told Belcher: “The horse should either be castrated or shot—preferably the latter.”
Boston was neither castrated nor shot and went on to win 40 of his 45 starts, at distances that typically ran three or four miles, racing until he was ten years old. He began his career at stud while still at the track. In that era of Thoroughbred racing, few races were the organized, managed, affairs of today. Many of the longer three and four mile races were run across country, or over informal courses, because the nation had few formal racetracks. Boston was an iron horse, able to run mile after mile, leaving all competitors in his dust.
Racing commentators have suggested that the match race between the country’s top filly, Fashion, and Boston, was both the greatest match race of its era, and the only race in which Boston was legitimately out-run. The race was one of the most celebrated of its era, drawing 70,000 fans to Long Island’s Union Course, then New York’s largest racetrack. Belmont, Saratoga, and the others would not be built for another 20 years. By this point, Boston had already begun his career at stud, having covered 42 mares at a stud fee of $100, an unheard-of figure in the 1840s. Boston cut a large gash in his hip on the rail, and while he led the race for three of its four miles, he faded in the last mile to the point that Fashion caught up with him, and beat him by 60 yards, setting a world record for four miles of 7:32 ½ .
Lexington, born in the spring of 1850, was a big bay colt, who reportedly stood 15 hands, 3 inches high. He was often described as having good conformation and a pleasant disposition, two things that were never said about his sire. Lexington was originally named “Darley” by his owners, a reference to another of the British foundation stallions, but when a syndicate of owners bought him for $2,500 (a huge sum for the day) in 1853, they renamed him Lexington.
Lexington’s racing career was short compared to that of his sire, but equally brilliant. He won six of seven starts, including the most prestigious race in Kentucky at the time, the Phoenix Hotel Stakes, in 1853. He raced through his four-year-old year, and his most celebrated campaign was a series of meetings with his half-brother, Lecomte, also sired by Boston in 1849, and foaled in 1850 after Boston’s death. Lexington went on to beat the world record set by his sire, Boston, over four miles, in one of his heats against Lecomte.
Lexington was retired after his four-year-old year because of poor eyesight (he had inherited Boston’s eye problems as well as his speed) and stood at stud. In 1858, he was sold to Robert A. Alexander, owner of Woodburn Stud, near Midway, which we visited in our column on the theft of Asteroid (a son of Lexington) by the Confederates. Alexander’s Woodburn Stud was the finest horse farm in Kentucky, and virtually singlehandedly, Woodburn — and Lexington, the horse — established Lexington, the town, as the center of Thoroughbred breeding in America, a distinction it fought to keep during the heyday of racing in the northeastern United States later in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.
Lexington ultimately sired 236 winners. They won 1,176 races, ran second 348 times and third 42 times for $1,159,321 in prize money, a fantastic sum in the late 1800s. Though Lexington sired four Belmont Stakes winners, three Preakness winners, and two Kentucky Oaks winners, he was born too late to sire Kentucky Derby winners; he died in 1875, the year of the first Kentucky Derby. The race that put Lexington on the national map, though, was the Travers Stakes, run at Saratoga Race Course.
Lexington sired Kentucky, the winner of the first Travers Stakes in 1864, who was owned by William Travers himself, founder of the race. Kentucky was generally thought of as the top Thoroughbred in the Northeast (he was sent to New York to race), while his half-brother Asteroid, once stolen by the Confederates, was thought to be the best runner in the “West.”
Of the first 15 Travers Stakes races, Lexington sired nine winners, a record that has never been duplicated, and likely never will be. As we have seen in our columns on the history of the Triple Crown, the modern Triple Crown of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes, did not gel until 1931; prior to that point, no one had attached any particular significance to those three races.
Numerous of Lexington’s offspring won three or more of the most prestigious races of their day, including the Duke of Magenta, who not only won the Travers Stakes of 1878 (three years after Lexington’s death), but also won the Withers Stakes, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes, certainly the athletic equivalent of today’s Triple Crown.
Lexington’s grandson, Americus, foaled in 1892, became among the first American stallions to be exported to Great Britain, where his offspring included the great stallion Golden Rod (foaled in 1906). Lexington’s influence on racing was so great that, just as two states had banned offspring from Sir Archy, Lexington’s grandsire, from competing in their races, the entire nation of Great Britain did the same.
The Jersey Act, passed in 1913, was ostensibly for the purpose of protecting British bloodlines, but the technicalities of the Act effectively banned offspring of Lexington from racing and breeding in England. Because Americus was imported prior to the passage of the Jersey Act, he was registered in the English Stud Book.
The only modern American sire to come close to Lexington’s influence was Northern Dancer, whose fourth grand-dam was Americus Girl, daughter of Americus, Lexington’s grandson.
In 2009, Lexington (the town) gave Lexington (the horse) one of the strangest honors ever bestowed on a Thoroughbred: It adopted an image of a blue horse (“Big Lex”) produced by taking Edward Troyes’ famous 1868 painting of Lexington, and turning the horse blue. The Lexington Fayette Urban County Government has adopted the image as an official logo for the city, and the image was used extensively during the 2010 World Equine Games, held at the nearby Kentucky Horse Park.
The world of racing in Lexington (the town) today is far different than it was in Lexington (the horse)’s day. The era of three and four mile races, often run on informal tracks, is long gone. The day in which a stallion stands at stud while continuing to race is also long gone. But for a few examples, the day when horses race until their ninth or tenth year, is also gone.
What remains the same, though, is that Lexington (the town) has maintained its status as the top Thoroughbred producing area in America, with the help of Lexington (the horse), whose blood still flows through most Thoroughbreds racing today, and whose image (now blue) has become the symbol of that town. And, in 1949, the Jersey Act was repealed by the holders of the General Stud Book, allowing American-bred horses, including the numerous descendants of Lexington, to once again breed in England. One might say that Lexington had conquered the world.
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a lifelong interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award-winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Miller’s role as legal editor on ABC TV’s “Good Morning, America.” He writes, posts and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.