It takes real passion and commitment to change horses mid-stride – or careers. But that’s what happened to author Kim Wickens. Once a Texas-based criminal defence attorney, she swapped leads to try her hand at writing a non-fiction book. The risk payed off and her first book, Lexington: The Extraordinary Life and Turbulent Times of America’s Legendary Racehorse, became a bestseller.

We previously reported about the novel Horse by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks, which highlights what a fascinating story Lexington proved to be. Now based in Kentucky, Wickens is an amateur dressage rider who shared with us her inspiration and hard work that came together to make her book such a success.

HORSE CANADA: What inspired you to quit practicing law and turn to writing?

Kim Wickens: I discovered Lexington while reading a book about Man o’ War, a horse I considered to be the best racehorse who ever ran. The authors presented a parallel to an obscure horse named Lexington. Comparing Man o’ War to him, they wrote, “No other horse since Lexington had so stirred the emotions of an entire nation, even those those who had never seen him run. Both horses had that indescribable quality of greatness which lifted those who saw them out of their ordinary lives and made them conscious that they had witnessed something that would stir their memories as long as they lived.”

Why had I never heard of such a legendary horse? When I first looked into Lexington, there was about a half page of information on Wikipedia. There was no book about him. Intrigued by a horse who was possibly greater than Man o’ War, I set off on several years of research into racing repositories and historical archives to discover everything I could about Lexington.

As I started to dig deeper into the research, I learned the true impact this horse had, not only on the nineteenth century, but also our present day. He ran at a time when American races were run in heats of up to four miles, the upper echelon of racing. A horse had to win two heats (each heat was followed by a forty-five-minute cooling period) to win the purse. This could require a horse to run a minimum of eight miles in a single race.

Not only did Lexington excel in this strenuous level of racing – breaking a one-hundred-year world speed record for four miles in the process – but he ran them disabled by limited vision, blind entirely in his right eye with his left also impacted. It took a horse of extreme stamina and courage, what nineteenth century turfmen called “bottom,” to pull off such feats. That was why the nineteenth century people adored him. It was because at that time, in 1854 and 1855, when America was already torn and on the brink of a civil war, this horse gave them hope. People from the North and the South cheered for him and he reached such a celebrity status that his every movement was recorded in the press.

Lexington was eventually retired after only seven races due to worsening vision, but during those seven races he accomplished more than most horses ever would. He retired to a stud farm in Midway, Kentucky where he established one of the greatest Thoroughbred lines in America, and this in the midst of the Civil War. He is the only horse who holds the title of America’s Leading Sire an unprecedented 16 times. He crosses into the pedigree of nearly every horse who ran after him, or who ever will.

Of course it wasn’t just the horse. Lexington’s two owners, Richard Ten Broeck and Robert Alexander, also suffered tragedies and setbacks. Lexington’s stud farm, Woodburn, was raided three times by Confederate guerrillas seeking fast horses, with Alexander eventually moving Lexington and the lot to Illinois for their protection. It was only through their own perseverance that Lexington was able to shine. I felt compelled to write his history.

Was was the biggest challenge researching and writing about Lexington?

We are talking about the nineteenth century when recording of events was not always as methodical or precise. There are gaps in the history. There are also gaps in the explanations for how something occurred. In the race records for Lexington, the press wrote of matters as if they were common knowledge, which of course to nineteenth century people, they were. But more was needed for our modern understanding. I had to turn to other nineteenth century sources to learn how horses travelled, and were trained to run heat races, also how they were recovered between heats and after the race itself. At that time, the work was done primarily by enslaved or freed Black men since they were the ones who worked most closely with horses on plantations. They brought their skills to the race course and not only trained the horses but jockeyed them as well.

I found information in journals and nineteenth century periodicals and books written by veterinarians and army personnel that discussed traveling horses on the Atlantic and the Mississippi River. I also utilized the American Turf Register, primarily the 1830s era, which documented the very strict protocols for training and caring for the nineteenth century racehorse.

The Civil War features heavily in this book. To understand its impact on horses, and why horses were in such high demand at that time, I turned to the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion and the reports therein, as well as war journals written by men in the field and those in charge of cavalry. I also utilized the hand-written trial transcripts of the court martial proceedings of the guerrilla squad that raided Woodburn multiple times.

What do you hope readers take away from your book about this special racehorse?

Perseverance and the belief in oneself.

Lexington is also the subject of Geraldine Brooks’s novel, Horse. Your non-fiction book almost feels like the perfect companion to her novel.

I was not aware of Geraldine Brooks’s book until my agent sent Lexington to Viking, the publisher of Horse. It was at that time that we learned Ms. Brooks had an ongoing work on Lexington, but that it was historical fiction, thereby leaving room for the nonfiction. I was horrified, to say the least! A debut author writing on the same subject as a Pulitzer prize-winning and much-loved author? I thought I was done. But Ballantine gave me a chance.

I did not read Horse until after Lexington was in copy edits because I did not want to be influenced or intimidated by Ms. Brooks’s work. Shortly after Horse was published, Geraldine came to Lexington to promote the book. Our editors set up a lunch for us where we discussed this great horse and our various research, which pretty much mirrored each other. I found her to be generous and kind and she indeed eventually wrote a wonderful blurb for Lexington. When Horse came out, Ballantine did feel that the two books were complimentary of each other and decided to proceed with Lexington. I loved Horse and highly recommend it to readers.

How long have you ridden dressage, and what level are you training at?

I started riding dressage about eight years ago, but sadly, you would not know that by my training level, which is probably a Level 2. I don’t show because I don’t have the time to develop the horse or myself consistently to do that. It would be unfair for the horse. I love the challenge of dressage, getting that feel and connection with the horse. You have a human brain and a horse brain and you are trying to communicate to accomplish challenging movements with the utmost finesse. It’s difficult to do and requires years in the saddle and years of riding-feel and trust.

Tell us about your three horses.

Tattletail, or “Tattles,” is a Holsteiner mare who fits every cliche of a mare. As I say on my website, she finds absolutely nothing to be funny. But when you gain her trust, she’ll give you her full measure and heart. She’s wonderful. I bought her to be a schoolmaster for me, which she has done. She’s twenty years old now, but we still ride.

Flash is my leopard Appaloosa and he is adorable. He also gives his heart out for anything you ask. I bought him to ride trails, but he can do dressage at the lower levels. He looks gorgeous doing it. He has a lot of surprise about him because you would never guess he could do it by looking at him.

Farraz is my six-year-old American Hanoverian who thinks everything is funny. At seventeen hands, he’s a lot of horse! He has a great and gentle mind and is very much the cuddler of the three. A gentle giant.

What is your next book going to be about?

I love history and sport. Right now, I’m looking at one subject that deals with both, but not horses, unfortunately. I’m also exploring another historical topic that deals with endurance. Lexington was a great subject because it had not been done. The trick is to find a forgotten subject like that, one that people can connect with, and bring it back to life. It requires luck and a lot of digging.


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