A Horse Of A Different Color

Play associated audio

The 3-year-old champion colt named Hansen will not be the favorite in the Derby Saturday, but most eyes will unavoidably be upon him.

You see, in a field of chestnuts and bays, Hansen is already brilliant white. Well, technically he's a gray, but without boring you with equine pigmentation detail, thoroughbred grays — like the great Native Dancer — turn whiter as they grow older, and Hansen is simply prematurely white, sort of a four-legged Steve Martin.

To emphasize the alabaster, his owner wanted to dye his tail blue for the Blue Grass Stakes, but the stick-in-the-mud racing officials thought that was tacky.

But as rare as white horses are — fewer than 8 percent — it is amazing how they have fascinated virtually every culture. White horses are chosen to stand for good and for bad. One of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse rides a pale horse, but the unicorn — which is invariably depicted as white — stands for purity. Only virgins can capture unicorns. But contrariwise, in some cultures white horses represent fertility.

White horses stand for power and glory, too.

In the book of Revelation, not only Jesus, but all the armies of heaven will descend astride white horses. In politics, "the man on the white horse" invariably refers to the leader who is going to save us. Peale and Trumbull famously painted George Washington with his white steed. For the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee's famous mount, Traveller, really was a white horse.

White horses are just as common in fiction. Pegasus is a white horse. In Shrek, the donkey turns into a white horse. Even in nursery rhyme: "Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross to see a fine lady upon a white horse." And currently, Taylor Swift sings: "It's too late for you and your white horse to catch me now."

Even though nobody but the infamous Peeping Tom is supposed to have seen Lady Godiva ride in the buff through the streets of Coventry, she is invariably portrayed astride a white steed. And of course after Dusty, his noble chestnut, was killed by bad guys, the Lone Ranger found a new mount.

It's amazing. For being such a small minority in the animal world, nothing pops up in so many cultures in so many places, representing so many different things, good and bad, as white horses. However, in the 137 Kentucky Derbys, seven gray colts have won, and Winning Colors, a roan with a white face, was a filly who beat the boys in 1988, but no horse so pale an ivory as Hansen has ever won.

Hansen likes to go to the front, and as they turn for home Saturday, will he still be there, on top? Here they come now, down the stretch but instead of "My Old Kentucky Home," this year maybe, "The William Tell Overture."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

 

NPR

Writer James Alan McPherson, Winner Of Pulitzer, MacArthur And Guggenheim, Dies At 72

McPherson, the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, has died at 72. His work explored the intersection of white and black lives with deftness, subtlety and wry humor.
NPR

QUIZ: How Much Do You Know About Presidents And Food?

It's week two of the party conventions, and all these speeches are making us hungry. So we made a quiz to test your savvy about presidents and our favorite topic, food.
WAMU 88.5

Your Turn: Ronald Reagan's Shooter, Freddie Gray Verdicts And More

Have opinions about the Democratic National Convention, or the verdicts from the Freddie Gray cases? It's your turn to talk.

NPR

Police Use Fingertip Replicas To Unlock A Murder Victim's Phone

Michigan State University engineers tried 3-D-printed fingertips and special conductive replicas of the victim's fingerprints to crack the biometric lock on his Samsung Galaxy phone.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.