Lexington: Great Racehorse, Outstanding Sire

Lexington proved even greater as a stallion than he was as a racehorse. (Painting by T.J. Scott/Keeneland Association)

The city of Lexington, Ky., has long been considered the center of Thoroughbred breeding in the United States. Ironically, a racehorse named Lexington was equally pivotal in developing the modern American Thoroughbred, so much so that he could be considered just as influential as the city itself.

Not bad for a stallion that was blind!

Born in 1850, Lexington was as fleet on the track as he was brilliant as a progenitor, perhaps inheriting his talents from his accomplished sire Boston, a Hall of Fame runner who won 40 of his 45 races. Initially racing under the name of “Darley,” Lexington won his first two races with ease, these being “heat” races in which the same race is run more than once in a single day and the first horse to win two heats is declared the winner. His first race featured one-mile heats (a very short distance at the time) and he was hardly challenged; four days later, he contested a race with two-mile heats, and after running second in the first heat, he won the next two decisively to be the overall winner.

It was then announced that Darley had been sold to the legendary owner and breeder Richard Ten Broeck, who renamed the colt Lexington. The long-term goal was to have Lexington represent the state of Kentucky in the inaugural Great State Post Stakes in New Orleans, a rich race with four-mile heats that was designed to pit the nation’s best horses against each other in an exciting showdown. The Great State Post Stakes would be held in April 1854, roughly 11 months after Lexington was sold, but the lightly-raced Lexington ran in just one other race during that timeframe, easily defeating the older filly Sally Waters in a match race with three-mile heats.

As a result, the Great State Post Stakes marked Lexington’s debut at the championship distance of the day (four miles), but despite facing a talented field that included future record-setter Lecomte, Lexington once again prevailed with ease. Before a massive crowd estimated at 30,000 people, Lexington won both heats by a minimum of three lengths, rallying from off the pace to win the second with a flourish.

A painting of Lexington. (Troye 1867/BloodHorse Library)

A week later, Lexington suffered his only defeat when Lecomte turned the tables in a rematch, but that setback was only temporary. The following year, Lexington was pitted in a “race against time” to try and break Lecomte’s record time of 7:26 for a four-mile heat. With the aid of two pacemakers, Lexington clocked the fantastic time of 7:19 ¾, shattering the previous record by 6 ¼ seconds. Twelve days later, Lexington came out for his final challenge – a match race against Lecomte. The results proved to be anti-climactic, for Lecomte – who had recently suffered an attack of colic – was unable to keep up while Lexington romped to victory.

Sadly, Lexington had to be retired at the peak of his powers due to deteriorating eyesight; according to the book “The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America,” by William H. P. Robertson, Lexington “had been suffering increasing loss of vision in one eye for some time. Now the other eye was beginning to go ...”

But racing’s loss was breeding’s gain. Retired to stud in Kentucky and soon sold to stand at Woodburn Stud, Lexington proceeded to rewrite the record books at an astonishing pace that has never been equaled.

The plain, simple statistics tell the story: Lexington was the leading sire in the U.S. 16 times, including 14 years in a row from 1861 through 1874. No stallion has since come within shouting range of eclipsing this record; Bold Ruler, the sire of Triple Crown winner Secretariat, came closest by leading the sire list eight times.

Before Lexington came along, no stallion in U.S. history had ever seen their foals earn more than $100,000 in a single year. Lexington left that milestone far behind in 1870, when his foals earned $120,360, a record that stood for 10 years.

Not surprisingly, Lexington’s foals dominated the early days of the Triple Crown. Although he never sired a Kentucky Derby winner (the race was inaugurated the year that he died), Lexington did sire four winners of the Belmont Stakes and three winners of the Preakness Stakes. As if that wasn’t enough, he also sired Preakness himself, winner of the Dinner Party Stakes at Pimlico and the horse for which the Preakness Stakes is named.

All of this might never have happened if not for a daring nighttime excursion during the height of the Civil War. There was fear that Lexington would be seized, captured, or killed during the war, and so in 1863, Lexington and many other Woodburn Stud horses were shipped by barge to safety in Illinois.

To put it simply, Lexington’s record as both a racehorse and a sire has been unparalleled, even though more than 130 years have passed since his death in 1875. While memories of many other racing stars of the 1800s have faded through the years, memories of Lexington still shine brightly. Lexington’s skeleton has been part of the Smithsonian Institution collection since the 1870s.

Now that’s a legend!

Fun Facts

  • Lexington was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1955, the year that the Hall of Fame was created.
  • Subscribers to BloodHorse magazine might be familiar with Lexington, as he annually appears on the cover of the BloodHorse Stallion Register.
  • Lexington retired with a race record of six wins and one second from seven starts, with earnings of $56,600.
  • While he never sired a Kentucky Derby winner, Lexington did appear in the pedigrees of four of the first five Derby winners, including inaugural victor Aristides.
  • Lexington sired four horses that have been inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame: Kentucky (inducted in 1983), Harry Bassett (2010), Duke of Magenta (2011), and Tom Ochiltree (2016).

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