Lexington (legendary racehorse)

Lexington, painting by Edward Troye (Wikipedia)

Lexington, the greatest sire in thoroughbred racing history, was stabled for a time in Sangamon County. But details of the horse’s stay are lacking.

Lexington (1850-1875) ran in only seven races himself (winning six), due to an infection that left him largely blind before he was six years old. In two decades at stud, however, he fathered dozens of notable horses, including Preakness, the namesake of the second leg of today’s Triple Crown races, and Cincinnati, Gen. U.S. Grant’s favorite mount. Lexington’s descendants include 12 of the 13 horses that (as of 2024) have won the Triple Crown.

Lexington’s remarkable story is recounted in two recent books – Horse: A Novel (2022), by Geraldine Brooks, and Lexington: The Extraordinary Life and Turbulent Times of America’s Legendary Racehorse (2023) by Kim Wickens.

Although Horse is fiction, it essentially elaborates on the known facts of the life of Lexington, his owners and trainers and his place in history. Lexington is a carefully researched conventional biography of the horse, written by a lawyer and dressage rider.

Both books agree Lexington’s owner sent him to Sangamon County in 1865 to avoid his seizure by Civil War raiders. But neither author provides any details – just bare, one-line mentions in both cases.

Robert A. Alexander (Wikipedia)

For most of his life, Lexington was owned by Robert A. Alexander* (1819-67) of Midway, Ky., and stood at stud at Woodburn Farm in north-central Kentucky. However, in early 1865, as the Civil War was nearing an end, the area was infested by guerilla bands, many of whom were little more than bandits. Included were the famous William Quantrill (killed in Kentucky in May 1865) and Marcellus Jerome Clark, who may have been the model for the androgynous, and probably fictional, partisan Sue Mundy.

One group of partisans raided Midway and Woodburn Farm in February 1865. When they left, they took 15 of Alexander’s prized horses. Lexington wasn’t one of the stolen horses, but the attack led Alexander to send his most valuable remaining horses out of harm’s way.

According to both Brooks and Wickens, Lexington ended up in Sangamon County. In both books, however, the horse’s local stay is mentioned only off-handedly.

Brooks focuses on Lexington’s fictional trainer/groom, “Jarret.”

Luck was with him: traveling by night and on backroads, he made it to the river crossing unchallenged. To the bargeman who would ferry them across to Illinois, he told the simple truth: that he was bringing his master’s most valuable horses out of reach of the war, to safety on his property in Sangamon County. …

Here is the relevant part of Wickens’ tale of the journey.

At the Kentucky border, Woodburn’s men led Lexington and the other Thoroughbreds of the train and walked them quietly and unnoticed to the bank of the Ohio River. There, several barges were waiting, bobbing softly in the water. Lexington and his progeny rode the Ohio River to the safer grounds of Springfield, Illinois, where Alexander owned another farm. …

 “(H)is property”? “(W)here Alexander owned another farm?” Land transfer records and plat books available in 2024 don’t bear out the statement that Robert A. Alexander owned land in Sangamon County in 1865.

Sale documents in the Sangamon County Recorder of Deeds office, accessed by SangamonLink in February 2024, do show that a man named Robert Alexander bought property in Gardner Township in 1843. At the time, though, Robert Aitcheson Alexander was living with his uncle in England; he didn’t return to the U.S. until 1849.

The Gardner Township purchaser might have been Robert A. Alexander’s father, also named Robert; it also could have been someone totally unrelated. In any case, however, an 1858 plat book at Lincoln Library’s Sangamon Valley Collection shows no landowner of that name anywhere in Sangamon County, much less in Gardner Township. The same is true of the next plat book, from 1874.

The 1858 plat book does list other property owners with the last name Alexander: Barbara, David, Henry and Hiram. But there’s no reason to think they were related to R.A. Alexander.

The fact that R.A. Alexander isn’t mentioned in 1858 or 1874 doesn’t rule out the possibility that he owned property in Sangamon County in 1865, of course. But it’s also possible that Lexington actually was stabled on another local horse farm during his relatively short stay – probably only a few months – here.

Wickens’ statement that Alexander owned a farm in Springfield is footnoted to The Morning Herald, a newspaper published in Lexington, Ky., from 1895-1905 (it’s an ancestor of 2024’s Lexington Herald-Leader). The footnoted story isn’t available online.

Lexington was returned to Kentucky sometime after the end of the war. He died and was buried at Woodburn. Six months after his death, however, Lexington’s body was exhumed and his skeleton mounted for display at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. It later was displayed both inside and outside the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. In 2010, the Smithsonian transferred the skeleton to the International Museum of the Horse in Lexington, Ky., where it was on exhibit in 2024.

Whatever the details of Lexington’s brief sojourn in Sangamon County, he had an impact on the local horse industry in the years following the Civil War. Several Sangamon County breeders owned horses sired by Lexington, and Lexington offspring appeared regularly in local races.

In June 1870, for instance, the Journal reported on a Blood Horse Association meeting in Springfield. According to the story, the session included one two-mile race in which, of the four horses entered, three had been sired by Lexington and the fourth by Jack Malone, himself a son of Lexington.

In another race at the meeting, Lexington offspring Aneroid defeated challenger Bob Lee in all three of their one-mile heats, the Journal reported.

“‘Aneroid’ was the favorite,” the paper said, “his stride and action on Tuesday indicating that he was possessed of the necessary bottom for this encounter. ‘Bob Lee’ also had his friends, but the absence of the magic word ‘Lexington’ in his description, made his backers more scarce.”

*Robert A. Alexander’s full name was, impressively, Robert Spreul Crawford Aitcheson Alexander.

Hat tip: Thanks to Geraldine Brooks for directing SangamonLink to Wickens’ Lexington: The Extraordinary Life and Turbulent Times of America’s Legendary Racehorse. “I think her historical research was very good,” Brooks wrote in an email.

Research into Lexington’s local stay continues. This entry may be updated.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society. Learn how to support the Society. 



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