04/25/2005 11:00PM

Mural of Derby-winning riders is cartoonist Peb's labor of love

From left, William Knapp, 1918, Exterminator; Ira Hanford, 1936, Bold Venture; Charley Kurtsinger, 1937, War Admiral; Mark Garner, 1934, Cavalcade; Willie Saunders, 1935, Omaha.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Churchill Downs is perhaps American racing's most hallowed ground, and now Peb has painted its Sistine Chapel.

The longtime Daily Racing Form cartoonist, known only on the most formal occasions by his given name of Pierre Bellocq, has painted the centerpiece to Churchill's newly renovated second floor: a mural seven feet tall and 40 feet wide that depicts the Kentucky Derby's 130-year history through the faces of the race's winning riders. The mural is part of Churchill's $121 million refurbishment, which has given the grandstand a gleaming digital-age interior while retaining the historic and beloved twin spires.

For devoted Derby pilgrims, Peb's mural is destined to become a sort of altar to the 100-pound athletes who have negotiated the Derby's famously perilous distance since the race was first contested - over 1 1/4 miles as a minor feature on the card - in 1875. Not all of the winning jockeys were famous, even in their own day, and many of them have been all but forgotten by modern racing fans.

This made things hard on Peb, 78, whose caricatures are famous for bringing personality to life in his cartoons. Who was Oliver Lewis, the man who piloted Aristides in the first Kentucky Derby? What was he like? Peb spent two months in the National Museum of Racing and the Keeneland Library researching the 96 winning jockeys - and trying to find likenesses of them. Eddie Arcaro is the largest figure - tying his stock in the center of the mural - and marks the point at which Peb began to know the jockeys personally, when he began drawing for the Form in the 1950's.

"By using a fuzzy, black and white, very old picture of a jockey, I could creatively paint the faces of these men," Peb said, "and I had to make sure they were as interesting to look at as the faces of the jockeys I know well.

"I was captivated by the fact that this was resurrecting their faces and the silks that no one today has ever seen. In old pictures, you don't see the vibrant colors."

As it turned out, tracking down lost photos of 19th century jockeys and descriptions of the silks wasn't the hardest part. Painting from early last November to mid-March, Peb had to paint indoors. And the only place big enough to accommodate the seven-foot by 40-foot mural was a storage space in the Daily Racing Form's Bristol, Pa., office.

"The place was huge and hard to heat," Peb said. "So I dressed like an Eskimo."

But the artist pooh-poohed the suggestion that he wear gloves: too hard to paint properly with one's hands bundled up. His wife finally sent over a space heater so he wouldn't freeze mid-brushstroke.

The Northeastern winter wasn't the only problem. The storage space, while long enough to hold the giant painting, was also narrow, forcing Peb to paint right under his nose, focusing on one small section at a time. It took him six months to complete it.

"There were a lot of shelves with copies of the Racing Form on them, so at least it was easy for me to get information!" Peb said. "The problem was that I had no distance. I was right against the mural as I painted it. I was afraid that when I was able to see it from a distance, something would be wrong in it and need to be changed."

Ah, but they say that anguish forges great art. And early reviews of Peb's mural - mostly from Churchill's cleaning staff and the construction workers who are performing the final renovation details in advance of the track's April 30 opening day - confirm that Peb's wintertime suffering has indeed resulted in something marvelous.

The renovation's price tag included $1 million for artwork, and there are other dazzling pieces besides the Peb mural. Two Louisville-connected artists, architectural glass designer Ken von Roenn and painter and printmaker Lloyd Kelly, also have work prominently on display. Von Roenn's towering 16-foot, multicolor glass sculpture is suspended above the rotunda in the track's new main entrance, Gate 17. Von Roenn's contributions include a giant calligraphy-style mural featuring horses, excerpts from famous writing about the Derby, and a depiction of the equine stride at full gallop. Another glasswork artist, Craig Colquhoun of Florida, has built a 30-foot-long replica of Churchill Downs on Derby Day, complete with women in colorful dresses and broad-brimmed hats, crouching cameramen, and galloping horses and their jockeys - a 5,000-piece ensemble, all in glass, that took four years to build.

But Peb's mural will likely become the centerpiece for the racing public, which will find some unusual features among the crowd of riders. A golden horse at the mural's far right has the symbol for infinity on his saddle-cloth, representing the race's future. Near him, a handful of Churchill executives are seated in the grandstand.

But the main point is the jockeys, and they will attract the most attention. Peb - himself an amateur jockey and the son, grandson, and brother of professional riders in his native France - hopes so.

"Jockeys are my favorite part of the sport," he said. "This mural is to glorify the Derby's winning jockeys, all 96 of them from 1875 to 2004, so you get the whole history of the race through them."