Sunday, March 22, 2009

Learning to Love LEX: Is Lexington Ready for Its (Really) Big Blue Horse Icon?

by Fran Jurga | 22 March 2009 | Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog

New York has the Statue of Liberty. New Orleans has the fleur de lis. Baltimore has the crab. Boston has the beanpot. And St Louis has The Arch. Now Lexington, Kentucky has LEX the Horse, but he’s not the same stallion we have known and loved for the past 150 or so years.

The new symbol of Lexington, Kentucky is a variation of the famous old painting of the Thoroughbred stallion named Lexington by Edward Troye. ( image)

The famous New York/London design firm called Pentagram, hired by the city to re-define its identity and culture, has an easy explanation for the blue beast: apparently eating all that Kentucky Bluegrass turned the stallion the same color as the University of Kentucky's basketball team jerseys. (How timely, during NCAA March Madness!)

Who is this horse? Once upon a time there was a very famous Thoroughbred stallion named Lexington. I can spot his portrait from a mile away because for as long as I can remember, his portrait has adorned the front cover of the Blood-Horse Annual Stallion Directory, a book that resides permanently on my desk until the next year's arrives.

Open any book on the history of the horse in art, and there’s that classic portrait of Lexington.

Lexington will start seeing blue horses everywhere; the rest of us will start seeing them in tourism campaigns for the 2010 World Equestrian Games, to be held in Lexington, which I guess we are supposed to start calling "Lex", as on our luggage tags. (Pentagram photo)

The real Thoroughbred named Lexington was the leading sire in the Bluegrass region for 16 years in the mid-1800s and established an unequaled record for dominance in the breed. His offspring won everything from Kentucky to Saratoga and would have won more if the Civil War hadn't inconvenienced racing and disrupted the lives of Kentucky gentlemen (to say nothing of their horses' lives). For several years, his colts went to war, not to the races; one was even the chosen charger of General Ulysses S. Grant.

Recently, someone in Lexington decided that the good old horse should make a comeback; a new generation of townspeople and college students should embrace the iconic stallion, who was painted many times by Troye, although the favored portrait is the one also used annually by The Blood-Horse. The brand's rationale is that by re-embracing Lexington, the city is reaffirming its heritage of horses.

So, Lexington (the town) is on a Lexington (the horse) kick. The Kentucky Historical Society dedicated a highway marker in Lexington last week--on the stallion's 159th birthday--in his honor. The Kentucky Horse Park wants to display his skeleton in their museum, if the Smithsonian in Washington will loan it.

All this is good news to those of us in the horse business, considering that Lexington's chosen icon might just as easily have been a blue Lexmark printer, a blue warehouse or just a Big Blue Hoop.

The timing for this embrace of the traditional Lexington horse image seems a bit odd, since next year Lexington will become the sport horse capital of the world, at least temporarily, as the World Equestrian Games come to town. The mega-event will surely eclipse Thoroughbreds for a few months. Besides, the mood in Lexington's Thoroughbred sector--as in the rest of the racing world--is a bit down in the dumps lately. The big blue horse may be unintentionally symbolic of the mood in the sales ring and breeding shed.

Coincidence? Big Lex's appearance in Kentucky coincides with the recent unveiling of a huge blue mustang at the Denver Airport in Colorado. I am sure there are some conspiracy theories out there. They even seem to be the same color. (Rocky Mountain News photo)

Is the bluing of Troye's classic Lexington like seeing Mona Lisa with a mustache or Whistler's Mother in a Barcalounger? They have tampered with something that seems quite sacred. Denver's mustang is anonymous. For many people, Lexington is as well-known for basketball as it is for horses, but should the two be mixed? And will the public get the connection? Did that commercial of Shaq in jockey silks inspire this icon?

Comparisons to the nonsense rhyme about the purple cow by Gelett Burgess are inevitable when the Big Lex campaign gets even bigger during the World Equestrian Games next year. (Pentagram photo)

The design firm's rollout of the LEX concept includes plans for the installation of really big blue horses in downtown Lexington. But, wait: When Troye painted Lexington, the stud wasn't exactly racing fit. Much worse for observant Hoofcare and Lameness readers: his right front seems to have gotten increasingly clubby in the process of silhouetting.

"Angel of the South" sculpture to be constructed in England, designed by Mark Wallinger. (University of Glasgow image)

But great design minds do think alike. In England, plans call for a 150-feet-high gray Thoroughbred sculpture to be built along the highway leading from the Chunnel and ferry docks of the south coast, so that visitors arriving for the 2012 Olympics in London will be welcomed to England by a big horse. The English icon looks quite a big younger, and infinitely more fit, than poor Lex.

Technically, visitors to Britain will be welcomed by a closeup view of the horse’s hindquarters, which face the highway. The horse seems to be looking longingly toward Ireland, as this simulated video shows. Is he distracted? Or perhaps, since horses are herd animals, he may be gazing even further, trying to catch a glimpse of LEX, who should be hard to miss.

To learn more:

Click here to read the Pentagram story about the design of the Big Lex icon, and see more images of proposed uses for the big guy

Click here for the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau web site for Big Lex.

Click here to read a recent article about Lexington's skeleton and efforts to return it to Kentucky.

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