07/28/2009 11:00PM

Haskell entrant brings to mind an artist

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
"Saddling Mahmoud for the Derby" captured a historic day at Epsom.

The appearance of Munnings in Sunday's Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park recalls the man after whom the horse, winner of the Woody Stephens Stakes and Tom Fool Stakes, is named.

Owned by Michael Tabor, Susan Magnier and Derrick Smith, aka Coolmore Stud, Munnings is the latest in a long line of Coolmore horses named for artists, writers, or composers. In this case his namesake is Sir Alfred Munnings, an Englishman who is generally rated as the greatest of all 20th Century sporting artists.

Born in 1878, Munnings could hardly have been expected to become an artist of such stature after an accident at the age of 19 cost him the sight in his right eye. Undaunted, he was accepted into the British army toward the end of World War I, entrusted to care for the cavalry's horses, and was eventually named an official war artist. It was that position that led to his first exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1919.

That same year he was introduced to the world of British racing. Newmarket captivated him and led to paintings like "Under Starter's Orders," a picture that perfectly captures the tension of a start in the pre-starting gate era.

But Munnings greatest love was Epsom, the home of the Derby. He would ultimately record every aspect of Derby Day, from the aristocrats in the winners' enclosure to the gypsies who made life in the Epsom infield so colorful. Most importantly, he captured the essence of the horses themselves, most memorably in 1936.

On Derby Day that year, Munnings had the presence of mind to bring his sketch pad to the paddock before the big race, paying particular attention to the Aga Khan's gray colt Mahmoud. Luckily for the artist, Mahmoud won, setting a course record for 1 1/2 miles that stood until 1995. The artistic result was "Saddling Mahmoud for the Derby.' Widely regarded as Munnings's masterpiece, it sold for $3.8 million at Sotheby's in 2000.

That price would be topped by the $7,848,000 brought by his "The Red Prince Mare" four years later. But paintings, like racehorses, cannot be judged solely in monetary terms. In capturing the the very spirit of the Thoroughbred, Munnings's artistic achievement is priceless. He died in 1959, acclaimed as the most accomplished equine artist since the 18th Century master George Stubbs.

Three of Munnings sporting but non-racing paintings form part of the Cross Gate Gallery exhibit at the Humphrey S. Finney Sales Pavilion at Saratoga from Aug. 1-30. On Sunday, the Thoroughbred Munnings will attempt to step into his own realm of greatness when he takes on Rachel Alexandra and Summer Bird in the Haskell.