01/16/2015 3:01PM

Hovdey: Racing cartoonist saddened by Paris attacks

Keeneland Photo
Horse-racing cartoonist Pierre Bellocq appears at an event in 2009, when his caricatures were donated to the Keeneland Archives.

Pierre Bellocq remembers it as if it were yesterday instead of more than 40 years ago, when he occasionally strayed from his work as a horse-racing cartoonist for The Morning Telegraph to provide The Philadelphia Inquirer an image of political content. Both publications were owned by Walter Annenberg.

“The right-wing military government in Greece had banned mini-skirts,” Bellocq recalled this week. “I drew a cartoon making fun of Greek soldiers in those tutus they wear, putting up posters in the streets of Athens forbidding the wearing of mini-skirts. That was good enough for me. And it was reprinted in The New York Times, which made me very proud. But when I came to The Inquirer the next day, the secretary said, ‘You must hide. There are angry Greeks in your office waiting for you.’ ”

Clearly, Bellocq had hit a sore spot. Those fluffy fustanellas, ceremonial garb for military occasions, clearly were off limits to the gentle mockery of a Franco-American cartoonist raised in the traditions of liberal artistic freedom. The presence of threatening gunsels on Bellocq’s doorstep was a cold slap of grim reality, fundamentally challenging the right to offend that had been baked into his DNA from an early age.

“So, I hid, and they eventually left,” Bellocq said. “Can you imagine? Over mini-skirts?”

The memory came back with a jolt last week at the horror of the Charlie Hebdo slaughter in Paris, where Bellocq’s father worked at the racetrack and Pierre had launched his career in the years following World War II. Five of the dozen slain at the publication by terrorists shouting religious slogans were political cartoonists of wide renown, colleagues in a profession as honorable and necessary to cultural discourse as any radical pamphleteer or soapbox orator.

Bellocq, under his “Peb” imprimatur familiar to all racing fans, was moved by the massacre to craft an original sketch for the Thoroughbred Daily News that depicted a prostrate, weeping Thoroughbred with its head on the lap of a somber young woman. The Thoroughbred is covered with a blanket labeled “US Racing.” The young woman is wearing a red liberty cap. In the background, the French tricolor is displayed at half-staff. The caption reads: “Today, we grieve with our French brethren.”

For Peb, a master of whimsy, deflator of cliché, and taker of most things not seriously at all, the cartoon was a sober, heartfelt departure. Bellocq also found comfort in his old editions of Le Canard encha î n é , a weekly French publication of biting domestic satire that has been covering a lot of the same incendiary ground as Charlie Hebdo since 1915.

“It’s difficult to find a comparable organ outside of France,” Bellocq said. “Eight pages, no advertising, and here it still is, 100 years later, to me a glorious monument to the freedom of press.”

Those who cartoon for a living are not by nature risk-courting daredevils. They have a skill, a point of view, and if they are lucky, a publisher who gives them a platform on which to spill their messages, whether they are amusing, enlightening, or even enraging. Bellocq, who made his early mark drawing for Paris-Turf, could have gone political at a young age.

“I was working for a French morning newspaper,” he said. “The political cartoonist died – he was an Irishman who I think was tortured in the war – and I had the opportunity to take over. But I was probably too intimidated by the importance of the task, so I stuck to what I was doing, which was drawing jockeys and racing cartoons.”

Lucky for racing. The generations of fans who enjoy his work are familiar with Peb’s splashy, thematic covers for major issues of Daily Racing Form , his sly caricatures of racing personalities, and the distinctive characteristics of his racehorses, with their glances of scorn at human handlers and occasional anatomical enhancements of certain fillies.

More recently, Bellocq’s work can be found spread across vast expanses of racetrack wall space in gleefully historic murals at Belmont Park, Del Mar, and Churchill Downs, as well as Gallaghers Steakhouse in Manhattan. DRF released Bellocq at the end of 2009, but his sketches, both archival and original, still are published weekly by the Thoroughbred Daily News.

At 88, Bellocq walks the New Jersey countryside two miles each day near his Princeton home. He never stops thinking about work and foresees another exhibit of his work having some kind of national exposure.

“Something to celebrate, my old age,” he said with a laugh. “But thanks to a good wife and two good legs, I can still enjoy all of it.”

That is until the news turns grim and the simple job description of “cartoonist” suddenly takes on symbolic weight.

“I left France long ago,” Bellocq said. “But I knew a few of the cartoonists working there through the years, and it still is hard for me to understand how they could be a target for such stupidity. How people can have such a lack of imagination, of sense of humor. It makes me very sad and very upset.”