Why did Central Kentucky become the center of thoroughbred breeding? One reason was Lexington — not the city, the horse.
Lexington was a big bay stallion, the best racer of his time and perhaps the best sire of all time. He was born here and spent most of his life here. But he has spent most of his death in storage at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and, well, Kentucky wants him back.
Lengthy negotiations are about complete to put Lexington's reconstructed skeleton on display at the International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park.
"It looks pretty good right now," said museum curator Bill Cooke, who is expecting a call any day from Smithsonian conservators who must release Lexington's skeleton, officially known as Catalogue No. 16020.
The effort began more than two years ago when the horse museum became a Smithsonian associate, which allows it to borrow artifacts. "The first thing I said was we want to bring Lexington back to Lexington," Cooke said.
"I've always wanted to have (an exhibit) that traces the history of the thoroughbred in Kentucky," he said. "How did we get to be the thoroughbred capital instead of Nashville or New Orleans or New York? To a large extent, Lexington determined that we did."
Borrowing horse bones — even famous horse bones — wouldn't seem that complicated. But bureaucracy is bureaucracy.
At the time, Lexington was on rare public display as part of an exhibit at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History. Then, that museum closed for lengthy renovations, and nobody seemed to know if Lexington would be needed when it reopened. Just a couple of months ago, officials decided he wouldn't.
"They have been very supportive all the way along," Cooke said of Smithsonian officials. "They believe in the project."
The timing is good because on Tuesday — the horse Lexington's 159th birthday — the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau will kick off a marketing campaign built around a famous painting of Lexington — with the great horse recolored Wildcat blue.
The horse-of-a-different-color idea is an eye-catching gimmick. But using the horse Lexington to promote the city Lexington is a natural, said Ellen Gregory, a public relations executive who helped develop the campaign.
Gregory said the more she researched the great horse the more obsessed she became with him, because he had connections to so many famous people and events.
Lexington was born in 1850 at the farm of Dr. Elisha Warfield, a prominent physician, horseman and entrepreneur who treated Mary Todd Lincoln's mother, was a friend of Henry Clay and became known as "the father of the Kentucky turf."
Lexington, originally named Darley, won six of his seven starts, becoming the third-leading money-winner up to that time. He was retired to stud in 1855 because he was going blind and stood for 20 years at Nantura and Woodburn farms near Midway.
As a stud, Lexington was taken out of Kentucky only twice — to St. Louis for an exhibition in 1859 and to Illinois for safe-keeping in 1865, when Confederates were raiding Kentucky horse farms.
Lexington was the nation's leading sire for a record 16 years, and many of his offspring became top sires. The blind horse fathered 600 foals, more than 200 of whom became winners. His descendants included Aristides, the first winner of the Kentucky Derby.
Another famous Lexington offspring was Cincinnati, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's favorite horse. Grant rode Cincinnati to accept Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox and let President Abraham Lincoln ride him several times.
Lexington was such a celebrity that people came to Woodburn Farm from all over the world just to see him. One was Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who later wrote that visiting the horse was like being "in the sacred presence of royalty."
When Lexington died, the New York Times published a lengthy obituary. "He was probably more famous in his day than even Man O' War and Secretariat were in their days," Cooke said.
Smithsonian representatives came to Woodburn Farm on July 1, 1875, not knowing Lexington had died earlier in the day. A few months later, they arranged for his remains to be exhumed and shipped to Washington, where they have been ever since.
Once he gets the word, Cooke said he will raise the private money needed to move Lexington's skeleton and build a special glass case for it. The Smithsonian generally makes such loans on a five-year renewing basis.
"Hopefully this is going to be a long-term deal," Cooke said of Lexington's homecoming. "As long as we've worked on it, it's already a long-term deal."
Reach Tom Eblen at (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.