Although much has been written regarding Lexington, most of it has touched briefly on his racing career before turning to his monumental achievements as a sire. It is no exaggeration to say that the blood of Lexington was the foundation of the American Thoroughbred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; sixteen times the nation’s leading sire, he was probably even more influential as a broodmare sire. Nonetheless, before Lexington was a stallion, he was a racehorse, and one of the most remarkable ever to set hoof on a track. This is the reality brought to vivid life by Kim Wickens in her book Lexington: The Extraordinary Life and Turbulent Times of America’s Legendary Racehorse (2023, Ballantine Books).
Lexington’s story is inextricably intertwined with that of his owner, Richard Ten Broeck, the leading racecourse manager and promoter of the mid-19th century, and that of Robert Aitcheson Alexander, who purchased Lexington in the aftermath of the horse’s racing career to be the premier stallion at his Woodburn Farm. These interlocked strands are portrayed with rare skill by Wickens, who successfully interweaves them with both the minutiae of the procedures of horse racing and training of that era and the sweeping scope of the social and political tensions of the antebellum South and Civil War-torn Kentucky. The chapters centering around the guerrilla rampages of 1864-1865 and Robert Alexander’s desperate attempts to preserve Lexington and Woodburn in the face of these threats are particularly gripping, portraying a microcosm of the devastation being wrought on Kentucky’s agrarian society and its ordinary citizens. No attempt is made to sugar-coat the terror of those years or the atrocities that took place, but Wickens skillfully moves her narrative beyond the horrors into the peaceful years of the rebuilding of Woodburn and the concluding decade of Lexington’s life, which saw him become the most successful American stallion of all time.
Lexington’s personal story did not conclude with his death, for his bones—which were exhumed and articulated for display at the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia—had a tale of their own to tell, and Wickens follows that tale to a satisfying conclusion with Lexington’s return to his home state and city after more than a century. Throughout her book, Wickens never loses sight of either Lexington as a horse or Lexington as a symbol of his time, of a sport, of a city, and of an industry that, more than any other, defines Kentucky. For those who love the Thoroughbred or are interested in either the history of racing in the antebellum South or the history and heritage of Kentucky, Lexington is essential reading than belongs on the shelf of both the horse lover and the historian.