It was a chance encounter with a high-level Smithsonian Institution official at a luncheon held in Massachusetts that led the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks to the 147-year old skeleton of America’s greatest stud sire and champion thoroughbred. For almost a century, the bones of the renowned racehorse had been kept stored and mostly forgotten in a fourth-floor attic of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

The life of that distinguished stallion, named Lexington in homage to his city of birth, provides both the imagined and true subject of Brooks’ newest historical novel, fittingly titled Horse.

Horse: A Novel

A discarded painting in a junk pile, a skeleton in an attic, and the greatest racehorse in American history: from these strands, author Geraldine Brooks braids a sweeping story of spirit, obsession and injustice across American history.

Horse transports readers to the racially fraught South, where Brooks re-imagines real-life 19th-century characters of the artist Thomas Scott, horse owner Richard Ten Broeck and others, alongside mid-20th-century New York City art dealer Martha Jackson. Most compellingly, Brooks crafts an exceptionally sensitive portrayal of an enslaved groom and his special bond with Lexington. That young man, Jarret, is briefly mentioned as the subject of a lost painting by Scott, which Brooks read about in magazines from his era.

Interspersed in a narrative that shifts between centuries to illuminate the stench of ongoing racial inequality, Horse also features a host of composite 21st-century characters with details heavily researched at the Smithsonian. Guided by experts from mammologists and osteologists affiliated with the National Museum of Natural History to curatorial staff at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) and the National Museum of American History, Brooks’ Horse mingles the past with the present, and history melds with well-informed invention.

“Objects like Lexington’s skeleton and the painting of him from the 1850s conjure the past and transport me there,” Brooks says. “It’s the real magic of a place like the Smithsonian and its affiliated museums. By recognizing and conserving these things—sometimes small, sometimes forgotten or overlooked—we get second and third chances to connect with the past and find meaning there. For me, it is the indispensable scaffolding from which my imagination can soar.”

Lexington was not just any horse. In the early 1850s, the famed stallion won six of his seven races and earned his owner $56,600 (almost $1.5 million today), making him the third best moneymaker to that moment. For 20 years he held the record as the fastest horse in the world.

Lexington took part in a challenge dubbed “The Race Against Time.” Instead of an opponent, the horse raced in a much ballyhooed showdown against a stopwatch. Lexington broke the four-mile record during the highly anticipated event even though his shoe dislodged. The length of that race is remarkable in and of itself; the races of the Triple Crown number less than two miles each. Lexington was an endurance horse with limitless power who could run the equine equivalent of a sprint marathon.

In 1855, Lexington won his last race despite galloping down the track partially blind.

Skeleton on view at the Castle
For a time, the rearticulated skeleton of the revered racehorse and prolific stud, Lexington, a thoroughbred that had sired more than 230 progeny, which combined had won 1,200 races, stood watch in the yard outside the Smithsonian Castle Building on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (above, in an undated photograph). Smithsonian Institution Archives

Retired because of his faltering sight, Lexington became a stud and sired 575 foals. For sixteen years he was the country’s leading sire, including two years posthumously. To this day, no sire has ever produced as many champions. From 1855 to 1880, more than 230 of his progeny won nearly 1,200 races—four triumphed at the Belmont Stakes and three offspring won the Preakness Stakes. Preakness himself was one of Lexington’s foals. The trophy given to the winner of that storied race features a portrait of Lexington standing atop the vase.

Six months after Lexington died, his skeleton was exhumed from outside his barn to be displayed at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, a world’s fair celebrating the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In preparation, the bones were shipped to upstate New York to be bleached in the sun and mounted. Unfortunately, the skeleton was not ready in time for the fair but was soon donated to the Smithsonian as a national treasure.

The rearticulated skeleton was proudly displayed outdoors in front of the Castle and then inside the Castle. After a stint in the Arts and Industries Building, the bones were relegated to museum storage. Around the 1970s, Lexington served as the supreme specimen of the horse in the Natural History Museum’s Bone Hall, but at that point he had become merely a generic horse, his pedigree as a revered thoroughbred and prolific stud far from memory. When in 1999, plans were being made to move his remains to the American History Museum as part of an exhibition featuring the first mass-produced stopwatch, Lexington’s illustrious identity was rediscovered.

Eager to have the skeleton of the legendary stallion for the upcoming World Equestrian Games in Lexington, held in the U.S. for the first time ever in 2010, the International Museum of the Horse, a Smithsonian Affiliate, requested the repatriation of Lexington’s bones. Under the guidance of the Smithsonian Affiliations program, Lexington’s remains were indeed returned and since 2010 have been on permanent loan to the museum. Lexington dubs their namesake the “Official Horse of Bluegrass Country.”

Chrondometer
Following Lexington's historic race against time, the chronodometer, the first mass-produced stopwatch (above: from the collections of the American History Museum) was invented, inspired by the horse's famous feat. NMAH

It was during the rearticulation of Lexington for his current display that conservators noticed the bone around his eye socket was deformed. Lexington’s blindness had long been considered congenital because his sire had also gone blind, but close study demonstrated that an abscess in his skull robbed him of his vision.

A painting of Lexington from around 1857 by the itinerant artist Thomas Scott is also housed at the Smithsonian. The artist is one of the most important equine portraitists of the era, and his canvas depicts the handsome horse standing regally at his trough. Lexington, the only true equine portrait held in the SAAM collections, stands out for its caliber, says the museum's senior curator Eleanor Harvey. “Scott’s painting of Lexington is visually riveting. It is painted with a kind of empathy that makes you want to stand in front of the canvas and know more about the horse. The eye is a window into a soul in a portrait and Scott gives you that soul, but Lexington can’t see back.”

Lexington’s lean physique and the luster of his glossy coat, highlighted by distinctive white markings on his feet and head, were effusively lauded in his day. Scott himself opined about the stallion’s wondrously muscled, perfectly proportioned form in Turf, Field and Farm, a popular New York journal: ​“Lexington was without a peer. . . . fifteen hands three inches in height, of very extreme width from the point of one shoulder to the other, broad shoulder blades … Lexington came as near to being all horse and no ounce of surplus as one could imagine.”

Lexington in storage
By the late 1960s, the skeleton had been consigned to a storage area at the Natural History Museum. Smithsonian Institution Archives

Scott’s painting of Lexington arrived at SAAM in a surprising way. The canvas came as part of the bequest from Martha Jackson, a highly influential dealer of abstract art in mid-century America. As an outlier in Jackson’s collection of works that included paintings by Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, questions abound as to why she would purchase a 19th-century equestrian portrait.

Geraldine Brooks, a master at fleshing out the holes in true stories and filling those question marks in her historical fiction, imagined why Scott’s portrait of Lexington would be in Jackson’s unlikely hands. She read articles about Jackson and her 1969 oral history in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art but found no clues. “The loose thread of history was frayed and yet I found catnip for the mystery about why Jackson would have the painting,” Brooks says. Jackson’s mother, Brooks uncovered, was an avid equestrienne who died in a riding accident. Brooks conjures Jackson’s attraction to Scott’s portrait as one of sentiment.

It is unfathomable that Lexington’s story had been lost to history. So beloved, at his death he received a funeral fit for a statesman and was buried in an enormous custom built coffin. Admirers from near and far made pilgrimages to say one last goodbye to the extraordinary horse, some cutting souvenirs of his tail as a keepsake. In a nearly 500-page authoritative account of American thoroughbreds, racing historian Charles Trevathan opined, “The name of Lexington was handled with scarcely less deference than that of the Deity. . . . He was the heritage of the nation. He was Lexington in the minds of the people, and after him there were merely other horses.”

Pulitzer Prize–winning author Geraldine Brooks discusses her newest novel, Horse, which explores art and science, the bond between people and animals, and the continuing story of race and injustice. The Smithsonian Associate program, Geraldine Brooks on the Heart of a Horse, takes place at the S. Dillon Ripley Center and will be live-streamed Monday, June 27, 6:45 p.m. eastern time.

Editor's Note, June 14, 2022: This story has been updated. The chronodrometer was invented after Lexington's Race Against Time, inspired by the famous event, but not for the race.