09/21/2004 12:00AM

Charity art auction has come a long way


TUCSON, Ariz. - An insult 29 years ago has given North American racing one of the world's largest auctions of all-breed equine art, and has given scores of worthy kids from racing families a chance at a college education.

The affront came at the old Canyon Hotel in Palm Springs, Calif. Palm Springs flourishes, but the Canyon is long gone.

It was the scene of the annual convention of Harness Tracks of America in 1975, and two weeks before it was to start I received a call from the convention manager of the hotel.

"You're in for a real treat," he said. "We're having a display of equine art during your convention, and there will be 200 horse paintings on the walls."

There were horse paintings all over the walls, but not one harness horse.

I promised that would not happen again, and the next year I launched an equine art competition, with net proceeds directed to a scholarship fund for sons and daughters of participants, or participants themselves.

The competition has grown beyond all my hopes or expectations, and on Oct. 8 and 9, more than 300 works of equine art, much of it racing related - and including Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds, saddlebreds, hunters, jumpers, and polo ponies - will be sold at the Tattersalls sales pavilion in Lexington, Ky.

There are treasures in the offerings, and it is a true international art event. Painters, sculptors, woodcarvers, and ceramicists from Canada, Sweden, Poland, Russia, France, Germany, Wales, Vietnam, and Iran are represented, along with some of the best-known horse artists of North America.

George Ford Morris, the foremost American equine artist of the first 60 years of the 20th century, has six pieces in the show. His oils seldom are seen at public auction, and notable among his works at Tattersalls will be a large painting of the breed-founding Darley Arabian.

There are four oils by Morris's student Helen Hayse, paintings of Spectacular Bid, Man o' War with his groom Will Harbut, and two of Genuine Risk. There also are Man o' War prints by Morris, and a rare 1924 print of Man o' War by J. Martin, along with prints by Leroy Neiman and Richard Stone Reeves.

The 14 Reeves Thoroughbred prints include Phar Lap, Affirmed, Northern Dancer, and Genuine Risk; his trio called "Three Kings" - of Nijinsky II, Spectacular Bid, and Secretariat at Claiborne; and another titled "Profiles of Courage," featuring Forego, John Henry, and Kelso.

Publisher's proofs of C.W. Anderson drawings of a Thoroughbred head and a Thoroughbred in pasture are included, as is a spectacular rare oil - Anderson did not usually work in that medium - of a steeplechaser.

The most exciting painting in the auction, and the likely sale-topper, is an early 1867 untitled oil of a saddled mount in a stall with a beautiful hound, by the German master horse painter Emil Volkers. Volkers was a court painter from the 1860's until his death in 1903, the same period covered by Currier & Ives in America, and this show and sale incorporates 63 of their original lithographs, mostly large folio, along with 26 of their now-rare comics. Most of the Currier & Ives paintings are of trotters, but one big Thoroughbred print is the rarely seen "Celebrated Winning Horses and Jockeys of the American Turf," a 34-by-29 lithograph with 15 leading horses and jockeys of the period, their descriptions all keyed into the print.

One of the most interesting consignments in the auction is a uniformly framed set of 13 prints originally seen in the 19th century sporting bible Spirit of the Times, and reproduced 55 years ago by the Harvard University Press. The collection is titled "The American Sporting Gallery," and with the 13 prints goes a superbly preserved large folio commentary on each of the horses by Corvel Collins. The famous early runners depicted include Black Maria, Fashion, Boston, Leviathan, Shark, and Monmouth Eclipse.

Also interesting, of more recent vintage within the memory of older players today, is a beautiful Jean Bowman oil of Wait a Bit, one of the trio in the famed triple dead heat at Aqueduct with Brownie and Bossuet in 1944.

All 300 works are online, enlargeable, at www.harnesstracks.com, and color catalogs are available from HTA at 4640 E. Sunrise Drive, Tucson, Ariz., 85718; telephone (520) 529-2525; fax (520) 529-3235; e-mail info@harnesstracks.com. Advance and live telephone bidding is available. There is no buyer's premium, and all net proceeds go the HTA College Scholarship Fund.