11/12/2004 12:00AM

Another great horse comes to Texas

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George Stubbs/ The National Gallery, London
"Whistlejacket," painted in 1762, is George Stubbs's life-size masterpiece.

NEW YORK - Wilko, Ouija Board . . . and Whistlejacket.

The only two British horses to run in the Breeders' Cup at Lone Star Park, Wilko and Ouija Board both proved successful with victories in the Juvenile and the Filly and Mare Turf. On Sunday, another British horse, Whistlejacket, arrives in the Lone Star State, and he is an odds-on winner for anyone who makes the effort to come and see his peculiar display of Thoroughbred grace and power.

Whistlejacket, however, will not be appearing at the racetrack in Grand Prairie, Texas. His field of operations lies some 20 miles west of Lone Star Park, in Fort Worth, where the curators of the Kimbell Art Museum have gathered 65 equestrian works by the superb 18th century British artist George Stubbs.

"Whistlejacket" is Stubbs's masterpiece. A life-size portrait measuring 10 feet high by eight feet wide, it depicts the broad-necked stallion rearing, as if something has just startled him. So lifelike is it that Whistlejacket himself was spooked when shown the work-in-progress. Arguably the greatest equestrian portrait ever produced, "Whistlejacket" is the centerpiece of the Kimbell's exhibit "Stubbs and the Horse," which will run from this Sunday through Feb. 6.

What makes "Whistlejacket" so remarkable is not just the unerring accuracy of Stubbs's vision - stand too close to the picture and you may feel impelled to take a step back to avoid having your foot trod upon as the horse returns to earth - but the style the artist employed. "Whistlejacket" is painted on a plain brown background, a radical departure for 18th century artists who normally placed their subjects in a stall, a paddock, or alongside a racecourse.

The effect gives "Whistlejacket," painted in 1762, a vaguely modern look. Stripped of context, this chestnut with the white mane and tail might be a contemporary work, not that anyone working in the field of sporting art today could match Stubbs's extraordinary achievement.

Whistlejacket the horse was foaled in 1749. Bred by Sir William Middleton in Northumberland, he was a son of Mogul, who himself was a son of the Godolphin Arabian, one of three Arabian stallions from which all Thoroughbreds trace.

A success in the early days of organized British racing, Whistlejacket won 14 of his 18 starts. In 1756 he took the King's Plate at Newmarket, and was later second in the Jockey Club Plate at the same track to Spectator, who is the subject of another work in the exhibit, "The Duke of Ancaster's Stallion, Spectator, with a Groom."

Sold in 1757 to Stubbs's patron the Marquess of Rockingham, future prime minister to King George III, Whistlejacket concluded his racing career at the age of 10 with a victory over Brutus in a four-mile match race at York worth the astonishing sum of 2,000 guineas. To put that figure in perspective, it would be 50 years until the first running of the classic 2000 Guineas Stakes at Newmarket in 1809.

Retired to stud, Whistlejacket was a modest success, his best offspring being the filly Laura, the second dam of both the American sire Expedition and of The Dandy, who finished second to the great Whalebone in the 1810 Epsom Derby.

The Kimbell exhibit is the first ever devoted exclusively to Stubbs's equestrian art. It also marks the first time that "Whistlejacket" has been away from its permanent home at the National Gallery in London since it arrived there in 1997. There it customarily holds pride of place in a grand room it so dominates that visitors are drawn to it as if by a magnet, leaving in their wake nearby pictures by masters like Turner and Gainsborough.

But "Whistlejacket" is not the only reason to visit the Kimbell. Among the 32 oils on canvas, 30 works on paper, and three books exploring the anatomy of the horse are a number of seminal works in the history of equestrian art.

Included are "The Marquess of Rockingham's Scrub, with John Singleton Up," Singleton being the jockey who rode Whistlejacket when he was owned by Rockingham. "Turf, with Jockey Up, at Newmarket," on loan from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, provides a glimpse of Newmarket's wide-open spaces in 1765, as does "Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, with a Trainer, a Stable-Lad, and a Jockey," a portrait of the horse for whom the Gimcrack Stakes, a Group 2 race for juveniles run at York every August since 1846, is named.

Also on view is the Kimbell's own Stubbs, "Lord Grosvenor's Arabian Stallion, with a Groom," a picture in which the artist has captured all of the nervous energy of his subject, posed on a grassy knoll not far from Chester Racecourse in Cheshire.

Students of breeding will want to see the portrait of Eclipse, although this mezzotint is not by Stubbs, but by Thomas Burke after Stubbs's oil on canvas, which hangs at the Royal Veterinary College in London. The sire, grandsire, or broodmare sire of 10 Epsom Derby winners, Eclipse's place in the history of racing and breeding is as lofty as that held by Stubbs in the realm of sporting art.

The self-taught, cherub-faced Stubbs saw and recorded it all. He was there at the beginning, during the gestation period of modern Thoroughbred racing in the decades just before and immediately after the inception of the first classics: the St. Leger (1776), the Oaks (1779), and the Derby (1780).

The Kimbell will be the first of three venues for "Stubbs and the Horse." If you can't make it to Fort Worth, the show will travel to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore from March 13 through May 29, providing one more reason to be at Pimlico for the Preakness Stakes on May 21. It will then move to Whistlejacket's home stable at the National Gallery in London from June 29 through Sept. 25.

Whether it be in Texas, Maryland, or England, do see it. "Stubbs and the Horse" is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to appreciate the work of the man from whom all equestrian artists are descended.