02/11/2009 1:00AM

Fitting tribute to a Classic winner

Del Mar Park
Hye Joung Tibby's painting depicts 2008 Pacific Classic winner Go Between in the saddling paddock at Del Mar. Go Between died of heart failure on Jan. 12.

ARCADIA, Calif. - If you are a horse, and your portrait hangs on the east wall of the ground floor of the Del Mar Clubhouse, then you've done something special.

Arrayed there, in a variety of artistic styles and poses, are the images of the winners of the Pacific Classic, dating back to its first running in 1991. They have names like Pleasantly Perfect, Lava Man, Best Pal, Free House, Bertrando, Candy Ride . . . you get the idea. The Classic is a young race, aging well.

Last week, the portrait of the 2008 Pacific Classic winner was presented to track president Joe Harper and the Del Mar brass for their approval. They approved. The artist was understandably nervous, but the subject matter spoke eloquently for himself, despite the fact that for the first time in the brief and colorful history of the custom, the winner of the Pacific Classic was gone.

The death in Florida of Go Between on Jan. 12 from some kind of heart failure occurred just as Hye Joung Tibby, a local artist, was putting the finishing touches on her painting. A novice to horse racing, the 38-year-old native of South Korea was not aware of the tragedy at the time, and perhaps that's a good thing. The Go Between rendered by Tibby is a vibrant representation of his memory, standing free in the Del Mar saddling paddock, wearing only his leather Bill Mott halter.

"The word 'elegant' kept coming to me as I painted him," said Tibby, who cultivated fluent English as a translator. "That, and his eye. I wanted very much to capture the look in his eye."

Mission accomplished. As a final tribute to the life of an accomplished racehorse, the Del Mar version of Go Between rings true. This is clearly the kind of horse who could do what he did, and there have been only a handful of Thoroughbreds who have competed at Go Between's level over the past couple of years. His narrow victory in the Pacific Classic over Well Armed remains one of the highlights of 2008. With a bit more luck, a step or two here and there, Go Between could have won the Santa Anita Handicap and the Hollywood Gold Cup as well, and his fifth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic - his final start - was troubled enough to cost him the 1 1/4 lengths he was beaten by fourth-place Curlin.

Tibby saw Go Between only once, on the day of the Pacific Classic, first in the walking ring before the race and then in the winner's circle. Not long after that, he was back home in Kentucky. Since none of us look our best after running 1 1/4 miles on a warm afternoon, Tibby had to supplement her vision of Go Between with a variety of photographs.

"I love his facial expression," she said, pointing to a collection of head shots displaying Go Between's familiar blaze. "Whenever I paint a portrait, the eyes are so important. And even with horses, every eye is different."

Art is about process, and art on commission must please the patron most of all. Tibby submitted an earlier version of the Go Between portrait late last year, with a smaller image of the horse in a much different setting.

"The background was Kentucky," Tibby said, still amused by the idea. "I didn't really think about it at the time. I was more concerned about how Go Between looked. Joe Harper said he liked the horse fine, but could I put a couple of palm trees in the background."

The casual request gave Tibby a chance to step back, take a deep breath, and make a second run at the portrait. This time around, the setting is definitely Del Mar, and now Go Between occupies most of the canvas, demanding both scrutiny and admiration.

"I think it's very good," Harper noted. "Hye Joung is a perfectionist, you can tell. At the same time, I think she's very tuned in to the personality of the horse. It's going to make a fine addition to the collection."

Thank goodness there are a few racetracks around still patronizing the finer arts. California racing is still reeling from the great Santa Anita art sell-off begun by former owner Meditrust, during which the track's world-renowned collection of Munnings, Skeaping, and Stubbs racing art was auctioned for cold cash.

The artists commissioned by Del Mar to capture the Classic winners have included Tony Haigh, Celeste Susany, Christine Picavet, Sandra Oppegard, Don Schwartz, Carolyn Alexander, and Lee Ellen Smith. Borrego, winner in 2006, was commemorated in bronze by Nina Kaiser, who is currently working on a life-size bronze of John Henry for Santa Anita.

"Compared to them, I am just a spring chicken," said Tibby, who has been a professional artist for barely six years. "But I didn't spend these six years just hoping to get better. You need to study and work hard.

"I had painted horses before, but now I see them a little differently," Tibby added. "I'm definitely more attached to them. Just as subjects, they are very exciting. I have several clients that have had me paint their horses, and I try to touch them all the time. I am just so sorry that I never got to touch Go Between."

For a better look at the painting, .