05/02/2002 11:00PM

Beauty in eye of racing beholders


NEW YORK - May 1 was the ninth anniversary of Sea Hero's victory in the Kentucky Derby, a triumph that made Paul Mellon only the second owner in history to win both the Epsom Derby and its American equivalent.

Mellon, who died in February 1999, was an avowed Anglophile who discovered the pleasures of the turf while a graduate student at Cambridge University in 1930. Newmarket, home of two of England's most important racecourses, is barely 10 miles from Cambridge. Its temptations have lured many a young man away from his academic studies into the mysterious and thrilling world of the Thoroughbred, and Mellon was no exception.

The joys of racing that the youthful Mellon found at Newmarket, always his favorite racecourse, led to a lifelong love affair with the sport that reached its apex in the victory of Mill Reef in the 1971 Epsom Derby.

But like Edgar Degas, the French impressionist who spent so much time at Parisian racetracks for purposes French turfistes could not fathom, Mellon's chief interest in racing was not in the betting. It might not even have been in owning horses, as pleasurable as that must be when you are the winner of the world's two most famous and important races.

It was the aesthetic quality of racing that Mellon pinpointed as its prime attraction.

"It is the colour, the movement, the speed, the excitement, the competition, the skill of riding, the cleverness of the horses, and the primitive element of luck," he wrote of what attracted him to racing in his memoir, "Reflections in a Silver Spoon." "But it is mostly the love of the horse, the well-kept, well-trained, beautifully moving horse, the horse as an object of art."

The happy marriage of horse and art in Mellon's heart led to his becoming the most important collector of racing art in the world. With the purchase in 1936 of his first picture, "Pumpkin with a Stable-Lad" by the great 18th-century English horse painter George Stubbs, Mellon embarked on a collecting career that may be unparalleled.

The results are on display at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Ct. Adjacent to the Yale campus, where Mellon spent his undergraduate days, it is a museum that was built exclusively to house the overflowing fruits of his passion.

Racing fans with a sense of history who share Mellon's philosophy of art and sport can see at the Yale Center numerous pictures by Stubbs. Noteworthy is "Turf, with Jockey Up, at Newmarket." Painted in 1765, a year before Turf defeated King Herod in a famous match race at Newmarket, it provides a view of Newmarket's wide-open spaces over which both the 1000 and 2000 Guineas will be run this weekend.

Stubbs is represented by at least a dozen pictures at Yale. But there are strong collections of works by James Seymour, Ben Marshall, John Frederick Herring (Senior and Junior), James Pollard (especially his 1834-5 series "Epsom Races"), and, perhaps most importantly of all, Alfred Munnings.

The unquestioned master of 20th-century racing art, Munnings's talent for capturing a moment can be seen in "Saddling Up for the Grand National, 1919: Before the Snowstorm." With trainers and riders hard at work in the paddock behind the grandstand, Munnings uses the gathering storm clouds as a metaphor for the events that will soon unfold on Aintree's hallowed battleground.

His simply titled "Hyperion," a portrait of the enormously influential sire who was an ancestor of Mill Reef, is especially rewarding, recalling as it does the abstract background Stubbs employed in his famous portrait of Whistlejacket.

Munnings's "Newmarket Again," depicting horses circling at the start of the Rowley Mile in a scene that will be repeated in the Guineas this weekend, captures the tension of horses and jockeys alike, while never losing sight of the Thoroughbred's inherent nobility.

But even among all of the glorious Constables, Gainsboroughs, and Turners on exhibit at the Yale Center for British Art, one should make a special effort to see "Paul Mellon on Dublin," Munnings's 1932-3 picture of the young horseman aboard his Irish hunter. In it we see Mellon astride a giant three-quarters-bred, surveying the English countryside he loved so well. Here the artist has captured the natural elegance of the man whose generosity of spirit has made the parallel worlds of racing and art so very much the richer.