03/07/2008 1:00AM

A fitting tribute takes shape

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Nina Kaiser was not happy. Something wasn't quite right. Maybe it was the tilt of the head, or the width of the chest, or the right knee. That's it. He was just a little bit back at the knee. Or maybe the hind end in relation to the chest. No, it was the eye, his unforgettable eye. The eye had to be perfect or else nothing would matter.

Intercepting an artist in the middle of a major work is like dealing with a woman after eight hours of labor and just two centimeters of dilation. Things can get touchy, and the actual delivery seems a far, distant dream.

Still, it is the dream that drives the great sculptors, or as Michelangelo said, "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free." In Kaiser's case, she must build from the base of her wheel and peel away all the bits of modeling clay that do not look like the subject at hand, until that day she can release her creation to the foundry.

Like the best of her breed, Kaiser is a self-flagellating perfectionist who agonizes over details that only she will ever see. Which is why, for the purposes of this particular career-defining project, Kaiser is encouraging feedback and welcoming visitors to her studio overlooking Lake Hodges, about 20 miles east of Del Mar, where her lifesize bronze statue of John Henry is taking shape.

Commissioned by Santa Anita Park, a John Henry statue is a natural. He was a national treasure, without question, but it was at Santa Anita that John Henry met Ron McAnally, thereby changing both of their lives. It was at Santa Anita that John Henry made history as the first horse to win back-to-back Santa Anita Handicaps. And it was at Santa Anita that John Henry ran off a string of 11 consecutive stakes victories, nine of them over the Santa Anita turf.

Kaiser would seem to be the perfect artist for the John Henry project. Her work is known throughout the equine world, through both public issues and such private commissions as Sunday Silence, A.P. Indy, Serena's Song, and Precisionist. Kaiser struck the definitive images of both Charlie Whittingham and Bill Shoemaker when they were the two most recognizeable figures in West Coast racing. Several racetracks award Kaiser works as stakes trophies. Her busts of Laffit Pincay and Chris McCarron adorn the Santa Anita paddock gardens, in company with the George Woolf, John Longden, Shoemaker, Whittingham, and Seabiscuit works by other artists.

"We've all heard John Henry described as plain," Kaiser said, while wielding a shaping tool and studying the one-third lifesize model. "But he was a horse who demanded a second look."

He got more than that from a younger version of Kaiser, who worked as an exercise rider in Southern California for trainer Eddie Gregson during the reign of John Henry through the first half of the 1980s, when he won seven Eclipse Awards, two of them as Horse of the Year. Every day, Kaiser would take two or three horses to the track in the same time it took Lewis Cenicola to coax John Henry down the path and into a routine gallop. The old horse missed

nothing.

"That's how we all remember him," Kaiser said. "Standing there like a statue. He was posing for me every day for years. If only I'd known."

Kaiser's John Henry will join a number of bronze works commemorating great Thoroughbreds scattered around the country. New York fans get a daily dose of John Skeaping's Secretariat in full flight, at the center of the Belmont Park paddock. Herbert Hazeltine's majestic statue of Man o' War marked Big Red's grave at Samuel Riddle's Faraway Farm until 1977, when both the bronze and Man o' War's remains were relocated to the Kentucky Horse Park. Thomas Famiglietti's Citation is stranded in an empty reflecting pool at Hialeah Park, a lonely sentry at a deserted outpost. And John Henry already has been rendered alongside The Bart at Arlington Park, in Edwin Bogucki's interpretation of their wham-bam finish in the 1981 Arlington Million.

"When you work in life-size, there's no hiding," Kaiser noted. "I guess that's why I'm obsessing more than usual. But this is John Henry we're talking about. I know how much he meant to so many people, and I want to do him justice."

John Henry's death last October at the Kentucky Horse Park drew a gentle curtain on a remarkable life spent as a champion, ambassador, and role model for every hard-working racehorse who ever outran their expectations. He would have turned 33 this Sunday, March 9.

His fans can rest easy, though. Between a permanent memorial planned at the Horse Park and Santa Anita's decision to commission Kaiser, John Henry's legacy appears to be in good hands.

"I think this one will really define Nina's career, and I can't wait to see it finished," said Ron Charles, president of Santa Anita. "Obviously, it will be in a place of prominence. We're looking to have a real splash with it next season on opening day. And it will be there forever, long after you and I are under the turf course."

John Henry's turf course.