A Horse Of A Different Color

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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/.



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