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Legendary horse's skeleton returns to Lexington

He's home.

Welcomed quietly, carefully but with heartfelt congratulations all around, the complete standing remains of Lexington, the great 19th century Thoroughbred, were returned to the Bluegrass early Tuesday via a massive crate cushioned on springs and padded as necessary.

Bill Cooke, director of the International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park, stood by and glowed with relief and pride. This is the horse who definitively assured that Lexington became the Horse Capital of the country, if the not the world, he says. It is back where it belongs.

The horse had been gone from Kentucky for 132 years. But Cooke, along with others like former First Lady Pat Nixon aide Lucy Breathitt, started the process of trying to bring the record-setting Woodburn Farm legend home back in 1985.

"The Smithsonian has a lot of bureaucracy," said Cooke.

The glamour and breadth of the World Equestrian Games has probably speeded the final few months of negotiation along, but it's been an ongoing quest for 25 years, says Cooke.

Still, Tuesday morning, Horse Park director John Nicholson marveled at the symbolism of the moment: "I'm not sure that people realize how important this horse is to the uniqueness of our community, what role he played in the character of what we are and how blessed we are to be so unique. That he shows us now is just perfect."

Lexington is the horse that many local residents will recognize as the handsome newly-blue stallion that adorns city and chamber of commerce literature.

According to the Kentucky Horse Park and Commerce Lexington Inc., Lexington was born in 1850, and was originally named Darley. He was renamed Lexington in 1853. He was sold in 1856 for $15,000, reportedly the highest price paid for an American horse at the time. He won six times in seven tries, with earnings of $56,600. His only loss was to Lecompte, whom he later defeated in a match race which was known as one of the greatest horse races of the 19th century. Soon after, Lexington was forced to retire from the track because of his rapidly failing eyesight, something he had inherited from his Hall of Fame father, Boston.

His success at stud was and is unparalleled. The leading sire in North America from 1861 through 1874, and then twice more posthumously, Lexington has a 16-year record that holds today.

Of his 600 foals, one-third were winners, earning more than $1 million. Aristides, the first Kentucky Derby winner, was a grandson.

Upon his death, he was interred whole in 1875 but was dug up three years later to become enshrined in the nation's greatest historical keeper of memories, the Smithsonian.

At first, the museum exhibited his skeleton, explaining that his 7.19 minute time in a four-minute race was the fastest heat ever on record. They also explained that his skin was available for viewing at the Army Medical Museum.

Lexington shared a case at the museum with a dinosaur, a kangaroo lizard, an American ostrich and a llama.

Later, he fell out of favor and was quite ignobly stored as Catalog No. 16020.

Much later, he was again included on the floor, this time in the Timex-sponsored Timeline Exhibit's example of how man once marked distance as how long it took for a man to ride a horse to get from one place to another.

Two years ago, it was announced the Timex exhibit was to be discontinued and the International Museum of the Horse's Cooke began another attempt to get him returned.

Since 2005, the Horse Park museum has been an affiliate of the Smithsonian.

On Tuesday, the articulated bones were placed in a well-lit case with the familiar Edward Troye portrait of the wide-eyed horse. Though not ready by the time the Games begin, the room which holds the case, which is adjacent to the Calumet Farm display, will eventually include a permanent exhibit explaining how Lexington, the horse, helped the city win out "horse capital" bragging rights over other cities such as Nashville.

The hope, says Cooke, is that the horse finally "gets his due."

Especially here, where he earned it.

In several instances, a lot of townspeople don't realize that they refer to the horse without knowing it. For example, The Lexington Stakes at Keeneland Race Track and The Belmont Lexington Stakes at New York's Belmont Park are not references to the city, but are references to the horse and are run solely in his honor.

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