09/30/2008 12:00AM

Art for youth's sake at benefit sale


TUCSON, Ariz. - When art and racing are mentioned in the same sentence, which isn't often, the names of Paul Mellon and John Gaines come quickly to mind.

Both loved fine art and had the means to pursue and acquire it, at very high levels.

But what about art and racing in the atmosphere, instead of the stratosphere? What about the non-Mellons and non-Gaineses of the world?

For 30 years now, there has been an annual effort - a nonprofit effort - to provide the average guy and gal interested in both horse racing and good art with work portraying the beauty and action of the race horse, regardless of breed.

It started with a perceived insult, and has grown into an annual compliment to those skilled artists who paint, draw, sculpt, carve, and create images of beauty and imagination involving the horse in motion.

The result - the annual College Scholarship Art Auction presented each fall by Harness Tracks of America, the association of 38 major parimutuel racing organizations in the United States and Canada - comes up this Saturday morning in Lexington, Ky. It is the 31st edition of the unique event.

It could not occur at a worse time, with the nation writhing in economic agony.

But events like these are not spur-of-the-moment creations, and collections like the one being offered this weekend do not happen overnight. They take months of planning and searching, and thousands of hours and dollars of preparatory work. While vision is required, it is not 20-20, and time and events cannot be predicted. So the sale goes on, with two distinct groups of beneficiaries.

One is a small contingent of needy, worthy young people from families in racing, selected by a committee of 12 directors from member tracks of Harness Tracks of America.

The other are the buyers, who in this case are almost certain to acquire bargains in finding rare works of art at depressed prices.

The living artists who consigned these works are victims of bad timing. One man's good fortune is another's bad luck.

There are 220 works of equine art, and the names of the people no longer with us who produced many of them are known to all who collect horse art.

They include George Ford Morris, the foremost equine artist of the first half of the 1900s, and Richard Stone Reeves, probably the best known of the last half. There are a dozen works by Peb, best known for his cartoons in this newspaper, and nearly 20 by John Kittelson, the cowboy carver, sculptor, and painter from Wyoming whose firsthand knowledge of horses was transformed magically into masterpieces of wood. And there are more than 50 that came from the lithographic stones of Currier & Ives in New York and their rivals Haskell & Allen in Boston, and depict historically an America that once depended on horse power for transportation.

Morris's 11 original paintings in the sale include a large charcoal of Man o' War, produced in 1924 in Paris and left as part of his personal estate at Fordacres in New Jersey, and superb oils of the English Thoroughbreds Mambrino and Messenger, a founder of both the Thoroughbred and harness breeds in America. Another breed founder,the inimitable Justin Morgan, is there, and so is Lady Suffolk, the "old gray mare" of song and legend.

Whatever these works sell for Saturday, every penny net of expenses goes to provide the HTA scholarships. This year's five winners have parents who range from grooms and assembly-line workers to trainers and cleaning women, and their award-winning children aspire to careers as diverse as veterinary medicine, anthropology, and television and film production.

You can be part of the rewarding project of educating these bright young people, and reward yourself at the same time.

Live telephone bidding is available by calling ahead to Cindy Knox at HTA - (520) 529-2525 - who will arrange for bid-takers to call you Saturday morning with paintings or bronzes or carvings of your choice. You can see them all, in color, at .

The scholarship fund is a 501-c-3 nonprofit enterprise. It has provided almost $700,000 in 178 grants to 123 worthy sons and daughters of racing participants, and participants themselves. This year's winners, by an odd circumstance, are from five key states that will help decide the nation's next president: Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. And by another interesting coincidence, four of the five winners are young women.

I mentioned the perceived insult that started all this. I was the one who received it, when an excited convention hotel manager told me he was having an equine art show while my association met there. He did, with more than 200 paintings but not one harness horse. I vowed that would never happen again, and it hasn't, but the road is narrowing and this may be the last.