09/21/2007 12:00AM

Pictures taken in twilight

EmailWith round-the-clock care and thousands of fans hanging on every health report, the 32-year-old John Henry can hardly clear his throat these days without someone taking notice. That's as it should be, of course. He is a two-time Horse of the Year and genuine Thoroughbred hero. The final chapter of John Henry's life will be documented with the same attention that was lavished upon his glorious racing years.

The same thing cannot be said about a great many of the outstanding horses who have entertained horseplayers and enriched their human keepers through the years. Sure, the top stallions make news, and their careers at stud can be tracked for as long as they are commercially viable. There are even a handful of mares who merit superstar coverage after they leave the track and begin popping out their million-dollar babies.

Then there are all the rest, which is where Barbara Livingston comes in, most recently with her latest book of stories and photographs titled "More Old Friends: Visits With My Favorite Thoroughbreds."

This is a companion piece to Livingston's original "Old Friends," published in 2002. The woman is clearly not short of friends, but that is to our benefit. Livingston is a two-time Eclipse Award-winning photographer who is also a graceful writer and dedicated reporter of the stories behind the horses that attract her gifted eye.

The Livingston work is, for the most part, a celebration of noteworthy Thoroughbreds in their twilight years, as well as a grateful nod toward the people who have made those years as golden as possible. Some of the horses still live with their original owners. Others have been shuttled from farm to farm as bloodstock investments, yet are still valued. Most of them are pensioned, their commercial lives at an end. Then there are those who are recently gone - some even since the publication of "More Old Friends."

Of course, that's the risk you take when documenting horses foaled more than a quarter of a century ago. Several of Livingston's subjects have approached John Henry's actuarial plateau, including 29-year-old Summing, the winner of the 1981 Belmont Stakes now retired at Getaway Farm in California, and Storm Cat's dam Terlingua, still the queen of Overbrook Farm at the age of 31.

"More Old Friends" features Crystal Water, winner of the 1977 Santa Anita Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup, who died at age 31 in 2004, as well as Caterman, who beat John Henry in the 1981 Hollywood Gold Cup, and lived to be 28.

Princess Rooney is still alive at 27, living at Gentry Farms in Kentucky. She is fly-specked gray and a bit swaybacked, but still embodies the memory of the most impressive performance on that first Breeders' Cup program, when she blew away the Distaff by seven lengths.

And Thunder Puddles - remember him? - the blue-collar turf horse who knocked heads with regal All Along in 1983? He has made it to 28, full of spirit and living on a pension at Highcliff Farm in upstate New York.

Livingston has dipped in and out of the lives of these many horses through the years, refusing to abandon them just because they no longer answered the bell. The appeal of her "Old Friends" format is apparent, even though these are not pretty horses any more. They are weathered, worn, and low-slung, and through it all they exude nobility.

"I realize part of it is nostalgia," Livingston said this week from her studio in Saratoga Springs. "Many of the horses have been out of sight and out of mind, and in some cases I'm including horses that were never in sight in the first place.

"But to me, it's just the fact that the animals have had the grace to live that long, through all that we've put them through, and the stories they have hidden within them.

"And I also think they're actually much more unique-looking in old age than they generally were in youth," she added. "They've had such different experiences. The people in their lives have treated them differently, treating them with such reverence. That shows through."

It certainly shows through in Livingston's photographic art, as well as her storytelling. The final entry of "More Old Friends" is the three-time steeplechase champion Zacchio, who competed until he was 8, fox hunted to the age of 20, and then was retired to his own barn at Bunny Murdock's farm in New Jersey. Livingston photographed Zaccio in 2004.

"While he did not look young, he still looked great," she writes. "His coat . . . was still a bright red. His body was sturdy, his legs were nearly straight, and his mind was obviously alert. I instantly recognized the famous blaze that widened below his large eyes and disappeared into his nostrils."

The final image of the book is of Zaccio at his stall door, peering to his left, where his Hall of Fame plaque is mounted next to his nameplate. A sentimental observer might suggest he was reading his own reviews. But that's silly. Zaccio knows what he did.

Zaccio made it to the publication of the book, but just. He was euthanized last Monday, a victim of infirmities that tend to gang up on horses as they age. Thanks to a volume like "More Old Friends," the memories of a horse like Zaccio will live on. He was 31.