12/21/2009 3:43PM

Larger Than Life


It is a symptom of any poor economy that the art world will suffer. Horse racing art, such as it is, figures to suffer even more than its mainstream cousin. A harsh critic might suggest that there are only a handful of truly accomplished equine artists plying their trade, producing truly significant painting, sculpture and photography. But without patronage--forever a function of the economy--the next generation of talent will have no soil in which to grow, while the established, respected practitioners will suffer from lack of commissioned work.

That is why it is so encouraging that on Saturday, at Santa Anita Park, a major piece of equine art will be unveiled. In ceremonies during the afternoon, Ron McAnally will officially pulled back the curtain on Nina Kaiser's lifesize bronze of John Henry. That means 15-2 hands and about a thousand pounds of bronze. There will be gasps, cheers and tears. And that will just be from me. Imagine the sound from the hundreds gathered in the immediate vicinity of the Kingsbury Fountain, where the statue is being installed, from the thousands at the track watching on video screens, and from those viewing at home who will be moved by personal memories of the great Thoroughbred and the sight of this permanent monument to his achievements.

John Henry I was fortunate to have been allowed a very early sneak peek of the John Henry in Kaiser's studio more than a year and a half ago. As embryos go, it was a mere dot on an ultrasound--or in this case a 12-inch clay model on Kaiser's workbench, which was eventually transformed into a thousand pounds of patina-enriched bronze. She was at the time worrying over every detail, as the great sculptors will. Was the angle of the knee correct? Was the hip full enough? Was the head set naturally? Was the expression true? The commission called for John Henry to be captured under tack, which makes sense, since he was and will be forever known as the ultimate Thoroughbred warrior, although at that point he wore only his trademark sheepskin shadow roll.

The commitment to Kaiser and the John Henry statue survived the transition of Santa Anita into the bankruptcy proceedings of its parent company, Magna Entertainment. And thank goodness, for now there will be a modern counterweight to the antique sensibilities of the lifesize Seabiscuit statue standing in the Santa Anita walking ring, not to mention a West Coast version of the John Skeaping's Secretariat in the Belmont walking ring, and Alexa King's Barbaro fronting the main entrance of Churchill Downs.

Kaiser, like any artist worth her shaping tools, figured to be nervous as a bug boy on Saturday at the unveiling, since she usualy is. But a call to her earlier in the week revealed a woman of serene anticipation, and it was too early in the day for chardonnay.

"I was at Santa Anita last Thursday and peeled away some of the wrapping to check the patina," said Kaiser, whose bronzes of Charlie Whittingham, Bill Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay set the standard. "Everything looked fine, and then Ron Charles walked up and said, 'Come on. Let's see it!'"

That would be Santa Anita president Ron Charles, the man who green-lighted the John Henry commission, and who gets to say things like "let's see it" and make it happen.

"The reaction from the handful of people there made me feel very good about it," Kaiser said. "If they were pleased, I was pleased. I even forgot for a second the few little things I'd change if I could have it back."

On Tuesday of this week, the image of John Henry was being mounted on its base, and then on Saturday, Kaiser will release her latest creation into the world. If the unveiling unleashes a flood of John Henry memories, that will be a good thing. He is an old acquaintance who will definitely never be forgot. I've got a more than few treasured, first-hand recollections, including the sight of him on his pallet being lifted into a jet transport for the trip to Chicago and that first, historic Arlington Million. He was curious and calm, while his younger traveling mate Super Moment fretted and shook the lift. John Henry looked at him as if to say, "Sheesh, the kids today." John Henry won, over ground he loathed, by the nod of his nose. Here is his complete record: Download John Henry

The trip to Chicago was 28 years ago, last August, and shoot me if the memory still burns. John Henry, a Thoroughbred of abiding integrity, gave racing enough great thrills to last a lifetime. He was the last truly bi-coastal star, uniting fans in respect and admiration, with even a trainer of record in both New York and California during his first Horse of the Year campaign. To suggest that there will never be another one like him misses the point. There never were a lot like him in the first place. But before I babble on and on, this is a good place to open the floor. In the meantime, I can't wait to stand in front of that statue and listen to the stories.