Thursday, November 26, 2015

Doh! A deer! A broken deer!

As an artist, by necessity, I've learned to do some basic restorations---fixing broken eartips, touching up scratches and rubs, filling cracked legs, etc. In particular, I specialize in restoring Breyer woodgrains. Generally speaking, I try to buy mint pieces for my collection, but sometimes you find things you can't help but want to rescue. This poor Hagen-Renaker DW Patience had a bit of an accident (prior to my acquiring her). And as an avid collector of HRs, especially the wildlife, I had to try my hand at restoring her.

Happily, the breaks were pretty clean, and with a little gentle sanding of the edges (to make them fit back together again) and some water soluble glue, she was easy to restore to one piece.

With a little touch up of the edges, she's good as new.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Fairytale ending

The racing gods are often a cruel and capricious lot, and while I've cursed them often in the past, in hindsight, perhaps, just maybe, all of the anguish and frustration of the last 37 years has been for the best. Most of the 13 horses who tried and failed to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978 went on to have decent if not especially noteworthy careers (Spectacular Bid being the wildly talented exception). In light of what American Pharoah has done this year, would any of them really have been worthy to wear the crown? Maybe, maybe not. The racing gods dole out tastes of greatness stingily to give us perspective, to keep us from becoming jaded and blasé, to keep the Triple Crown something that is rare and extraordinary---to be sure we recognize true greatness when it glides past us, ears pricked, vanquished foes left dazed and far behind.
American Pharoah winning the Breeders Cup Classic with ease
(Photo by Taylor Pence,
Fairytale endings are rare in this sport, but a week ago before a crowd of more than 50,000 people, we got one. American Pharoah, making the last start of his career, raced once more into the history books with a dazzling romp in the Breeders Cup Classic. He led from wire to wire, ears pricked, and was never seriously challenged. At the top of the stretch, jockey Victor Espinoza turned him loose, and Pharoah coasted to an easy 6.5 length lead, passing the wire in a sharp 2:00.07, and shaving five seconds off Keeneland's previous track record for 10 furlongs on any surface. He will be forever remembered as the horse who ended the 37-year Triple Crown drought and the immortal who claimed what is now being called horse racing's "Grand Slam," the Triple Crown plus the Classic.

Over the last week, I've struggled to find the right words to sum up Pharoah's incredible performance and career for this blog, and I have been struck all over again by how different this horse has been from others who have gone before him in the quest for racing immortality. In the years leading up to Pharoah's Triple Crown victory, as the wait grew longer and longer, I opined on more than one occasion that it wouldn't necessarily take a great horse to win the Triple Crown, just a lucky one. All we needed was one horse who was a stand-out in a crop of mediocre three year-olds, one who had just enough extra talent to get the job done. But I was wrong. It does take a great horse to win the Triple Crown, and American Pharoah has driven home this point emphatically all year long. It takes luck, yes, but it also takes soundness of body and mind, stamina, incredible fitness, great heart, a willing spirit, and that little something extra that sets a great horse apart from his contemporaries.

American Pharoah possesses all of these qualities. Looking back now on his exploits of the last fifteen months, it is awe-inspiring to see how he seemed to thrive despite his grueling schedule. He improved with nearly every start, winning regularly by daylight even though Espinoza usually wrapped up on him in the last sixteenth of a mile. His times got faster with every race, culminating in his scintillating Breeders Cup performance. He also displayed remarkable physical resilience all year long. He crossed the country 14 times, traveled more than 28,000 miles, raced at 7 different tracks, and never once put a foot wrong. He has a beautiful, fluid, ground-eating stride that allows him to effortlessly glide over the ground and that supposedly measures two feet longer than Secretariat's. It may be the secret of his ability to run on any surface at any track, from dirt to polytrack to a sea of mud.

(Photo by
Pharoah's contemporaries by comparison have not fared nearly as well. Brilliant speed-horse Dortmund was laid up most of the summer with an injury after the Preakness; Firing Line was put on the shelf for the rest of the year after failing to fire in the mud at Pimlico; perpetual bridesmaid Frosted eked out a win in the Pennsylvania Derby after challenging Pharoah in the Travers and wilting before that colt's gritty determination (and was never even a factor in the Classic); Keen Ice, who managed to pull the upset in the Travers and whose trainer boasted that he would do the same in the Classic, finished some 13 lengths behind a fresh Pharoah despite also having been rested since the Travers. 

One of Pharoah's greatest strengths I think is his good mind, easy-going demeanor, and kindness of spirit. Pharoah by all accounts is a smart, friendly horse who thrives on attention. He has been utterly unfazed by the throngs of press and fans who have come to visit him, something few racehorses have the temperament to handle. Baffert has allowed unprecedented access to the horse because of his good nature, and Pharoah has taken it all in stride as if it were his due. Which it is.

(Photo by
Traditionally, the final test of a great three year-old has been the ability to defeat older horses. Of the three Triple Crown winners in the 1970s, only Secretariat was able to do so. And though the Classic field this year was small, it was one of the deepest in a number of years. Six of the seven horses who faced Pharoah were G1 winners: Honor Code (Whitney and Metropolitan Handicaps), Tonalist (2014 Belmont Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup twice), Hard Aces (Santa Anita (formerly Hollywood) Gold Cup), Keen Ice (Travers), Frosted (Wood Memorial), and Gleneagles (2000 Guineas, Irish 2000 Guineas, St. James Palace, National Stakes, and Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere). American Pharoah made this quality group of horses look like claimers as he bounded away to an easy victory, ears pricked all the way.

He won 6 G1 races all told as a three year-old, including 5 races with purses of a million dollars or more consecutively, something no other horse his age has done. Of the four Triple Crown winners since races became graded in the early 1970s, he is the only one to win more than one G1 race after the Belmont. He retired as the fourth richest American horse in history with earnings of $8,650,300. Had Visa not cancelled their $5 million Triple Crown bonus several years ago, he would have retired as the richest American racehorse of all time.

But all numbers aside, even as impressive as the statistics are, there are more ephemeral qualities that some great horses possess. Like so many Thoroughbreds, Pharoah ran for the sheer exhilaration of running. In nearly every race, his ears were pricked observantly, listening to the roar of the crowd and the rush of the wind as he sliced through it. I have never seen anything quite like it in my 30+ years following the sport. As I've mentioned in the past, I learned to read from C. W. Anderson's horse stories, and I think he would agree that American Pharoah has the "look of eagles," that quality in great horses of heightened awareness and of seeing something in the distance just beyond the sight of mere mortals.

As Bob Baffert so aptly put it in the latest issue of the Blood-Horse, Pharoah is a throwback to the hickory-tough horses of bygone ages. He proved himself to be fast, determined, versatile, sound, and above all, worthy of that elite company he joined at Belmont Park. He is the horse of a lifetime.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Groupie Doll

While I haven't had much time to blog or work on updating my website this summer, I have made some steady progress in my studio. I've finished up a variety of commissions, including this portrait of Groupie Doll, the two-time winner of the Breeders Cup Fillies and Mares Sprint. Hilary R. commissioned her and requested that I depict her with her tongue hanging out like the real mare often ran. I had never sculpted a tongue before, so this was a fun challenge. I'm really pleased with how she turned out.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Thirty-seven years

I turned two months old on the day Affirmed won the Belmont and secured his Triple Crown in 1978. Obviously, I was too young to even comprehend what a horse was, let alone what Affirmed accomplished that day when he out-dueled Alydar to the wire. As a child, I cut my literary teeth on C. W. Anderson's horse stories, reveling in his tales of the glory days of Man O' War, Whirlaway, Citation, and Native Dancer. I watched my first Kentucky Derby in 1984---Swale was both my first love and my first heartbreak. I have been a racing fan as long as I can remember, and for so many years, I have waited and watched and hoped that I too would have my chance to witness a Triple Crown.

Naturally, as an artist as well as a racing fan, Thoroughbreds have been a popular subject for me. I have painted more than 60 racehorses over the years, some of them Triple Crown winners, some of them near misses.
Seattle Slew
I was still too young to appreciate Spectacular Bid and Pleasant Colony's attempts at history in 1979 and 1981, and while I do remember the hoopla surrounding Alysheba's try, Sunday Silence's run at the crown in 1989 is the one that stands out most clearly to me. The week before the Belmont, I was preoccupied with thoughts of how amazing it would be to witness a Triple Crown finally. After all, eleven years had passed, and there had been three Triple Crown winners in the 1970s, so surely we were due for one again soon. My fifth grade self would have been shocked to know that not only would Easy Goer upset the Belmont, but that another eight years would pass before any horse would even have a shot at the Triple Crown again. 
Sunday Silence
Easy Goer
I was in college when Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and Charismatic all tried and came up half a length, a nose, and a length and a three-quarters short three years in succession. In 2002 after moving to Chicago for grad school, I attended my first live race, the Illinois Derby held at the now demolished Sportsmans Park. War Emblem upset the field that day in a run away victory, much as he did a month later in the Kentucky Derby and then the Preakness. But he stumbled badly out of the Belmont gate and was never a factor, finishing eighth. Seattle Slew died a few days after the Derby that year, leaving the world without a living (American) Triple Crown winner for the first time.
War Emblem
In 2003, Funny Cide could only manage third behind the mighty, mud-loving Empire Maker (who had been my Derby pick) at a rainy Belmont. Fan favorite Smarty Jones likewise succumbed to a late charge from Birdstone the following year. More than 25 years had now passed, longer than the drought between Citation and Secretariat, and there were rumbles that the series should be changed to allow more time between races or no horse would ever wear the crown again.
Smarty Jones
The parade of misses went on: Big Brown failed to stay in 2008 and was controversially pulled up; I'll Have Another injured a tendon the day before the Belmont in 2012 and was immediately retired; and California Chrome ran gamely but could only manage fourth in 2014. After the race, his owner angrily ranted that it wasn't fair to enter fresh horses and new shooters in the Belmont. He predicted the Triple Crown would never be won in his lifetime because of this. In retrospect, his timing is almost funny.
California Chrome
This year, 2015, began like many others. The Breeders Cup Juvenile winner dropped off the Derby trail early, and there was the usual jumble of sprinters who failed to move forward when the races lengthened in distance. Interesting to me though, were the unusually slow times for the winners in nearly all of the preps leading up to the Derby. The only real standouts in my opinion were a pair of colts trained by Bob Baffert---Dortmund, a strapping chestnut, and American Pharoah, a bob-tailed bay, the Two Year-Old Champ with the misspelled name who had missed the Breeders Cup because of a foot bruise.

American Pharoah had turned in quick times in his two wins as a two year-old, but his three year-old debut over a sloppy track at Oaklawn was slow but dominant. Dortmund meanwhile fired off quick victories in the San Felipe and the Santa Anita Derby, remaining undefeated as he headed into the Derby. A week after Dortmund's impressive Santa Anita Derby win, Pharoah skipped away from the field of the Arkansas Derby at the top of the stretch to win geared down in a hand ride by 8 lengths. Jockey Victor Espinoza never so much as waved his whip at Pharoah, and the colt floated down the stretch with his ears pricked. I was very impressed, but cautiously so. Plenty of horses have won their last Derby prep in an exciting fashion only to fizzle at Churchill.
Arkansas Derby win ( photo)
Interestingly, Pharoah did not in fact bring his "super-A" game to the Derby, as Baffert phrased it. The colt was upset by the loud and raucous crowd on the walk over to the paddock, and as others have done before him, he fretted away his energy before the race even started. Nonetheless, Pharoah's B game was good enough, and after stalking the pace early, he gutted out a one length victory over the tough Firing Line and his fading stablemate, Dortmund.
Kentucky Derby victory (Concord Monitor photo)
Going into the Preakness, I was uncertain of Pharoah's chances after such a hard-fought win in the Derby. I worried we'd see another race like Orb's in 2013 where he simply never fired and finished a tired fourth. But then, moments before the post parade, the heaven's opened up and a deluge of almost Biblical proportions fell on Pimlico. The track rapidly became a sea of mud, and water pooled into a small ocean at the rail, right in Pharoah's path where he would break from the 1 hole. Like his grand-sire Empire Maker before him however, Pharoah was a known mudder, and with the right positioning, I thought he suddenly had an excellent chance at adding the Preakness to his resume. Victor gunned him from the gate, dueled briefly with Mr. Z for the lead, and then moved the colt just off the rail onto firmer footing. Pharoah led the procession around the turn and down the backstretch in the driving rain, and while the field tried to make a run at him on the turn, Espinoza asked for another gear, and the plain bay colt obliged with that easy, ground-eating stride of his, winning by an ever-widening 7 lengths. The time was the slowest since Hill Prince had won the Preakness in 1950, but the rain-soaked silks and saddle pad had added 15 pounds to the 126-pound impost Pharoah already carried.
Ears pricked for a very muddy Preakness win (Patrick Smith/Getty images/
And so we headed into the Belmont with a chance at a Triple Crown for the 14th time in 37 years, wondering if maybe this would be the year. I tried not to get my hopes up, to steel myself against the surely inevitable disappointment. Nonetheless, insidious little thoughts crept through my mind---Belmonts are often won by front runners who can dictate the pace; Pharoah is versatile and can run from off the pace or he can set it himself; Belmont is a quirky track, but Pharoah seemed to relish the surface in his exercise gallops; Empire Maker won the Belmont, so maybe Pharoah inherited some of that stamina. Round and round and round it went.

Saturday morning at Belmont dawned with pouring rain. An omen? By the late afternoon though, the track was fast and dry. As the horses were loaded into the starting gate, I thought my heart would pound right out of my chest. Espinoza sent the colt to the lead immediately, and he quickly settled into an easy rhythm, ears pricked and loping along with that smooth, far-reaching stride. When the first quarter flashed up in :24, a tiny corner of my brain began screaming, "Oh my god, he's going to do it!" but I couldn't say it aloud for fear of jinxing him. The half came in a perfect :48 and then three-quarters went in a reasonable 1:13. Victor and Pharoah were setting the perfect, sane pace for a mile and a half race. That excitable, uninhibited part of my brain was jumping up and down and  yelling that as long as the colt could stay the distance, the chance of a Triple Crown was very, very real. But the quarter pole is where the real action usually begins, and I thought I might expire from nerves while the horses swept around the long far turn toward the pole at the top of the stretch.

The other jockeys began to ask their mounts for more as they wheeled out of the turn, and for a moment, it looked like Frosted was going to make a serious challenge. But Victor let his colt out another notch, and Pharoah's lead opened up to three lengths and then four. By that time, I was screaming incoherently. As American Pharoah flashed under the wire five and a half lengths clear of the field as America's long-awaited twelfth Triple Crown winner, I whooped and cried happy tears. It was everything I had hoped it would be and more---euphoria, elation, absolute wonder.

Belmont bliss ( photo)
American Pharoah's time of 2:26.65 was the fifth fastest Belmont in history and second only to Secretariat's in terms of Triple Crown winners. His final quarter mile, which he sprinted with apparent ease in :24.32, is the fastest of all the Triple Crown winners. (Secretariat's in comparison was :25 flat, the equivalent of about 3 lengths.)

After the race, I had to watch the replay again (and again and again) as I had shrieked all through the stretch call and had no idea what Larry Collmus said. In the hours after the race, it seemed surreal that at last a twelfth Triple Crown winner had been crowned, but now that a few days have passed, it has slowly sunk in. It's a fantastic feeling. I keep surfing over to Youtube and rewatching the race, and I get choked up hearing, "And here it is! The 37-year wait is over! American Pharoah is finally the one! American Pharoah has won the Triple Crown!” I suspect I always will.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Arazi, portrait of a champion

As a lifelong horse racing enthusiast, I was thrilled when I was commissioned to paint a portrait model of Arazi, the 1991 Breeders Cup Juvenile winner. Arazi was inconsistent but brilliant, and few BC Juvenile winners have sparked so much hype leading up to the Kentucky Derby.

Foaled in 1989 into a crop that included the likes of A. P. Indy, Bertrando, Pine Bluff, Devil His Due, and Dr. Devious, Arazi was as regally bred as they come. The small chestnut colt with the crooked blaze was by French champion and top sire Blushing Groom out of a G3-placed daughter of Northern Dancer. Arazi was born in the heart of the Kentucky bluegrass, and like so many youngsters, he was sold as a weanling at Keeneland. Allen Paulson, who later owned the great Cigar and Azeri, purchased him for $350,000 and sent him to France to train, a logical move given Arazi's pedigree. Paulson, a longtime pilot as well as the CEO of Gulfstream Aerospace, frequently named his horses for aeronautical navigational checkpoints. "Arazi" is just such a point for aircraft enroute to Yuma, Arizona.

As a two year-old in France, Arazi began his career with a second place finish at Chantilly, but that would be his only loss for nearly a year. He put together a string of 6 victories including the G1 Prix Morny at Deauville and the G1 Prix de la Salamandre and G1 Grand Criterium at Longchamp, earning him the title of Champion 2 Year-Old in France as well as the Cartier Award for best 2 year-old in Europe.

Paulsen then daringly shipped the colt to Churchill Downs for the 1991 Breeders Cup Juvenile. Sent off as the slight favorite over Bertrando, the impressive winner of the prestigious Norfolk Stakes, Arazi broke from the far outside post and trailed most of the field through the first turn and down the backstretch. Entering the second turn, Arazi suddenly unleashed an incredible turn of foot that still gives me chills no matter how many times I watch it. Weaving through traffic and passing horses with ease, Arazi caught the leader Bertrando before they reached the top of the stretch and, as Tom Durkin said in astonishment as he called the race, "ran right by him!" He blew the turn and entered the stretch wide, still running on his left lead, but it made no difference. He won by daylight in what is one of the most impressive Breeders Cup wins of all time.

Photo by Racing Post
Footage of Arazi's astonishing performance is available here. The race begins at about the 4 minute mark, but there is some interesting footage of Arazi winning in France leading up to the race.

Not surprisingly, Arazi was named champion 2 year-old in the United States as well. He wintered in France and had minor surgery to remove chips from his knees. As a European-based horse, he was prepped for the Kentucky Derby as most trainers would do so for the Epsom or French Derby---to wit, with only one prep. He won said prep, a one mile Listed race, with Steve Cauthen (of Affirmed fame) in the irons. He won as he pleased by 5 lengths, but his time was absurdly slow. It was little more than a paid workout. Nonetheless, the hype surrounding Arazi in the weeks leading up to the Derby suggested he was practically invincible. Many were already speculating about the Triple Crown before he had even competed for the first jewel.

That said, any student of Kentucky Derby history can tell you that a schedule consisting of one prep in six months simply doesn't work for a race like the Kentucky Derby. And yet Arazi made a huge move again on the far turn, looking for all the world like he really was the second coming of Secretariat. He was absolutely flying, gaining with every stride, and he nearly made the lead. But as they straightened for home, the game little chestnut flattened out, and though he battled on willingly, he faded and could only finish eighth.

Arazi returned to Europe where he ran 5th at Royal Ascot before being given the summer off. In the fall, he finished 3rd in a G3 and then won a G2 before returning to the United States to contest the Breeders Cup Mile where he finished an uncharacteristic eleventh. He was retired after the race, and as a stallion, he traveled just as much as when he was racing. His stallion career began at Dalham Stud in Newmarket, England. He later moved to Three Chimneys in Kentucky, then to Japan, on to Australia, a season in Switzerland, and once again to Australia. In 2012, he was pensioned there and is happily enjoying his retirement.

Arazi had only modest success as a sire. His best known son Congaree proved to be a terrific miler, and surprisingly, Arazi's daughters have produced several top stayers including Americain (Melbourne Cup winner and champion stayer), Electrocutionist (Dubai World Cup winner), and Lahudood (champion turf mare). Interestingly, Arazi also sired a number of top steeplechasers.

My customer chose the John Henry model for the Arazi portrait, and the tack was created by Lisa Merrill of Painted Daisy Studio.

Arazi may not have lived up to the media hype his BC Juvenile win engendered, but many still wonder how he might have fared in the Derby with a proper schedule of preps. He also crossed the Atlantic no less than 6 times in the span of a year which had to take its toll. Most horses hardly even travel across the country in a given year, let alone the ocean. He is generally thought of as being "just" a talented two year-old or miler, but I can't help but think that there was more to him than we ever got to see.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Pining for the Fjords

I had so much fun painting CollectAs before Christmas that I had to acquire a new batch of them to paint. I went a little Fjord crazy as you can see. I bought another Safari Percheron as well because it's such a nice, hunky little sculpture. He was sculpted by Jane Lunger who is better known as the sculptor of Breyer's G3 and G4 Stablemates. The CollectA Fjord of course was sculpted by well-known hobby artist Deb McDermott. I am willing to take commissions on these bodies ($75 each ppd in the USA, overseas shipping will be extra). Just shoot me an email at whitehorsepro (at) yahoo (dot) com if interested. Thanks!


Friday, January 2, 2015

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! Here's hoping for health and prosperity for all of my readers in 2015! I rang in the New Year relatively quietly with some cleaning and organizing in preparation for serious downsizing of my collection in the coming months. The number of horses, especially in the body box (now a body shelf), has gotten completely out of hand. I've been meaning to do this for quite a while, but finding the time has always been a challenge.

Happily, I closed out 2014 with a flurry of activity in my studio. I finished up and mailed out a number of commissions (pix of those soon!), and in between, I worked on a small herd of stocking stuffer models to sell. I had a great time painting these guys, and now that they all have gone off to new homes, I have room for more. Although that would defeat the point of emptying the body shelf.  But they're all roughly Pebbles scale or a bit smaller, so they won't take up much space. Right?

Seriously though, working in this scale was hugely fun for me. The models are just big enough to not strain my eyes, but small enough to be able to paint easily while working on batches of larger scale models. All of them were sculpted by artists familiar to hobbyists, too, so they have a great deal of detail packed into a tiny package while also having excellent ABCs.

CollectA Hanoverian (sculpted by Deb McDermott) in flaxen chestnut
Safari Percheron (sculpted by Jane Lunger of G3 and G4 SM fame) in bay roan
CollectA Fjord (sculpted by Deb McDermott) in bay dun skjevet (tobiano)
CollectA Fjord in grullo
G1 SM ASB (Maureen Love mold) in flaxen chestnut
Safari Icelandic (sculpted by Jane Lunger) in bay minimal tobiano

 I can't wait to paint more of these guys! Stay tuned!