Bluegrass and horses — both part of Lexington's identity — have been combined into a logo of a blue horse that many hope will become a symbol for the city, as recognizable as the Space Needle is for Seattle and the Eiffel Tower is for Paris.
Commissioned by the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau, the logo can be seen on the bureau's Web site (www.visitlex.com). The blue horse is featured on the current visitors guide and even has its own Facebook page under "BigLex Ky."
"He likes to report where he's been and what's coming up this weekend," Ellen Gregory, a public relations executive who helped develop the blue horse campaign, said of the horse's Facebook postings.
The visitors bureau has distributed 25,000 small blue horse lapel stickers, 1,000 of which were taken recently by Becky Jordan, a board member of the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, to a world championship reining event in Germany.
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While the tourism folks are eager to spread the iconic symbol around the world — especially because the WEG's Lexington debut is only 482 days away — some are less than thrilled with the blue horse.
For example, Mayor Jim Newberry has described the blue horse as looking amateurish. "He does not particularly like the horse," said his spokeswoman Susan Straub. "But the point is not what the mayor thinks. It's what the public thinks."
David Lord, president of the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he has no plans to solicit local input on the horse because residents here are not the target of the marketing efforts.
"We center our efforts on visitors coming in, not the community that lives here," he said, adding that the convention bureau is an independent organization funded entirely from the city's hotel room tax.
"We get no funds from the city," Lord said.
Perhaps not, but the Urban County Council has on its June 11 meeting docket a motion, sponsored by council member Diane Lawless, to make the blue horse the "visual logo" for Lexington. Some council members would like to see it on wayfinding signs around town and other city promotional materials.
Newberry "did not recommend that the signs, estimated to cost almost $1 million, be funded in his proposed budget, but that has nothing to do with the blue horse," Straub said. "It has to do with keeping the budget balanced and in the black. The wayfinding signs were one of many projects that the mayor did not recommend for funding in FY10. This is a year for 'have to' projects, not 'want to' projects."
The blue horse is no ordinary Thoroughbred. The international graphic design firm Pentagram used the famous stallion Lexington, painted by equine portrait artist Edward Troye, for the blue horse image. The painting hangs in a private collection in New York City.
The bay stallion, foaled on a Central Kentucky farm in 1850, was one of the leading race horses of his time and one of the all-time top sires. His descendants include Aristides, winner of the first Kentucky Derby.
Many argue that Lexington the city would not be the center of the Thoroughbred horse industry without Lexington the horse, Lord said.
For the Pentagram designers, the logo look was pretty obvious.
"They said when they got down to it, it was so simple," Lord said. "Lexington is the horse capital of the world. We are in the bluegrass. So bluegrass. Horse."
The painting's owners gave the visitors bureau "full rights to use the painting," Lord said. "We didn't have to pay them anything." The owners asked to remain anonymous.
"It was a natural progression," said Gregory. "When you're doing tourism promotion, you go with something iconic. You try to cut through the clutter."
Iconic or not, local blogger Eric Patrick Marr isn't happy.
"Lexington is way more than horses," he said.
From an economic and cultural standpoint, not valuing the community's intellectual capital has been "extremely expensive for us," Marr said in an e-mail, adding that the local tax structure is not based on Keeneland yearling sales but on local brain power.
But Lord compares Lexington proclaiming itself as the horse capital to Austin, Texas, promoting itself as the live music capital of the world.
"Austin is a lot more than music; of course it is," he said. "But that's what hooks people on the city. Once they get you there, they can say, 'Let me tell you the rest of the story.'"
Vice Mayor Jim Gray agrees.
"In business terms, we already have a brand investment in horses," said Gray. With the blue horse, "It's being cleverly and provocatively leveraged to a new level."