He was quite a “Horse”: New book revives the legacy of Lexington

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Horse, by Geraldine Brooks, is the story of Lexington, one of the most influential thoroughbred sires in the US in the 1800s.
Horse, by Geraldine Brooks, is the story of Lexington, one of the most influential thoroughbred sires in the US in the 1800s.

The long-forgotten but fascinating story of the USA’s most famous thoroughbred of nearly 175 years ago is brought back to prominence in a new book, simply titled Horse.

First named Darley and then Lexington, the son of Boston was born in 1850. He was the most successful sire of the second half of the 19th century, and leading sire in North America 16 times. Lexington raced in an era when the contests often comprised more than one four-mile heat in a day. His speed and stamina was unsurpassed.

The facts of his story are undisputed; Lexington was part-owned by a former slave, sold from under him, went blind, and then his mounted skeleton, once a popular exhibit at the National Museum of American History, was found decades later languishing in an attic. The exhibit was titled “Horse”. This was around the time of the rediscovery of the art of Thomas J. Scott, following the rescue of a discarded painting.

In Horse, Lexington’s story is revisited by Australian author Geraldine Brooks, who has carefully woven in a fictional storyline around the known facts.

The story is intertwined through three time eras: Lexington’s early life, career and the times in which he lived; the rediscovery of an important American artist in the 1950s; and present-day conservators studying Lexington’s skeleton to see if they could learn the secrets to his success. Amazingly, some 135 years after his death, scientists learned why Lexington went blind.

In the retelling of Lexington’s story, Brooks also shines a light on the black horsemen whose contribution to the Sport of Kings in the mid-19th century was huge, and generally unheralded.

Portrait of Lexington, about 1857, by Thomas J Scott.
Portrait of Lexington, about 1857, by Thomas J Scott. (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr and Mrs David K Anderson, Martha Jackson Memorial Collection)

Most of the workforce in the thoroughbred industry in this era were slaves or former slaves. Lexington’s first  trainer, Harry Lewis, was one of the best trainers of his era. The domination of black horsemen continued to the early 1900s; after 1921 there were no black riders in the Kentucky Derby until 2000.

Horse is an easy but compelling and page-turning read; the switch in era after each chapter prompts the reader to carry on just a little more to find out what happens next.

• Lexington’s skeleton was prepared in time to be shown at the International Museum of the Horse in Lexington, Kentucky, in time for the World Equestrian Games in 2010.

Poor eyesight prompted Lexington’s retirement in 1855, at the age of five. “The Blind Hero of Woodburn” lived to the age of 25, and was the leading sire in North America 16 times, every year from 1861 to 1878 (except for 1875, when he was third). In all, Lexington sired 236 winners who won 1176 races, ran second 348 times and third 42 times for $1,159,321 in prize money. He died in 1875.

His sire line flourished, especially through his undefeated son Norfolk, but was extinct by 1981. However, his influence on the pedigrees of the modern Thoroughbred is still felt through his daughters, who produced winners including Spendthrift and Himyar. Himyar established a sire line that has survived into the 21st century through Holy Bull, who sired 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo.

Published in June 2022 by Hachette; available in hardcover, softcover, and ebook, 401pp.
RRP $39.99. Available from most bookshops or online from Amazon.
9780733639685.

 

Geraldine Brooks
Geraldine Brooks

Australian-born Geraldine Brooks is an author and journalist who grew up in Sydney’s western suburbs. She worked for the Sydney Morning Herald and in 1982 she won the Greg Shackleton scholarship to the journalism master’s program at Columbia University. Later she worked for the Wall Street Journal, where she covered crises in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. In 2006 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for her novel March. Her novels Caleb’s Crossing, People of the Book and The Secret Chord were New York Times bestsellers, and Year of Wonders is an international bestseller, translated into more than 25 languages. She is also the author of the acclaimed non-fiction works Nine Parts of Desire and Foreign Correspondence. In 2011 she presented Australia’s prestigious Boyer Lectures, later published as The Idea of Home. In 2016 she was appointed Officer in the Order of Australia for her services to literature. Geraldine Brooks divides her time between Sydney and Massachusetts and has two sons.

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