09/09/2003 12:00AM

Visions of yesteryear on display


TUCSON, Ariz. - The last 50 years of the 1800's were the age of Currier and Ives in America.

Prints made from their paintings were the television of that era, capturing the spirit of America, recording its heartbeat, preserving its history, immortalizing its heroes.

Those heroes included horses, who provided both the transportation and the sport of the day. Most of Currier and Ives's early horses were trotters, but around 1880 they began portraying Thoroughbred runners, and later this month, in Lexington, Ky., 32 of their best Thoroughbred works will be exhibited and sold at public auction.

The show and sale has been a fall feature in Lexington for 27 years, a charity event for the college scholarship fund of Harness Tracks of America. This year for the first time it includes Thoroughbreds, another step on the road to ecumenical cooperation.

Besides the 32 superb Currier and Ives prints, there are paintings both new and old, works on Thoroughbred racing by contemporary artists and past masters.

There are 125-year-old oil paintings by Scott Leighton, one of Currier and Ives's principal artists, and others done currently by Jim Ponter, who established his reputation as a Philadelphia Bulletin artist and as a sculptor at the Franklin Mint. There is a beautiful large Thoroughbred action oil by the Polish master Zenon Aniszewski and watercolors by his colleague Michal Sieminski. There is a fine oil by the American Helen Hayse, portraying the great Thoroughbred geldings Forego and Kelso and their Standardbred counterpart Rambling Willie in retirement at the Kentucky Horse Park, and a superb bronze of a mare and colt by sculptress Joan Irving Brandt, whose work appears in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There is a wonderful Thoroughbred woodcarving by master carver Roy Lennberg of Oregon, and prints of Man o' War and Whirlaway by George Ford Morris; of Whirlaway and Citation by Milton Menasco; of Affirmed by world-renowned animal artist Guy Coheleach; of Seabiscuit by R. H. Palenske; and two prints from the old Harper's Weekly of 1889 by Frederick Remington, known primarily for his Western art but also a student of the racehorse.

For the foxhunting crowd, there are seven watercolors by the English masters Henry Alken Sr. and Samuel Alken, painted around 1825. For Saddlebred fanciers, there is a brilliant-cut red etched-glass trophy, signed by Lorenzo Pero, that was given as a trophy at the National Horse Show of 1895, and a copy of the exceedingly rare limited edition portfolio issued in 1914 of The American Saddlebred and Morgan Horse, with 54 plates and 168 individual photos and sketches by George Ford Morris, a titan of American equine art for the first 60 years of the 20th century.

The Currier and Ives in the show and sale include small folios of leading runners of the late 1880's and eight exceptional large folios. Two of those - "Winning Hands Down with a Good Second" and "The Futurity at Sheepshead Bay," both done in 1891 - are wonderful action scenes with great color, and a third, "A Great Field in a Grand Rush," produced in 1888, depicts a wild stretch charge of at least 16 horses and jockeys with upraised whips. An 1891 print of "Great Horses in a Great Race, Salvator and Tenny," is classic action, and there is a beautiful large folio of Mr. August Belmont's Potomac and Masher.

Currier and Ives comics are hard to find these days, and there are three hilarious prints in this show. One, "A Steeple-Chaser," shows a steed and his rider widely separated at a jump. Another, called "Delaying a Start," has a tiny rider hanging on desperately for life as his mount rears. A third, "A Feather Weight Mounting a Scalper," depicts an agent holding his jockey in his arms as his charge flails sky-high with both hind feet.

For polo fanciers, the show includes an exceptional bronze by sculptress Jean Clagett, and a vivid large oil by Aniszewski, the show's most successful artist in recent years.

Thanks to the Internet, all 212 works can be seen and enlarged online at www.harnesstracks.com. They will be on exhibit the entire week of Sept. 22 in the grandstand of the Red Mile racetrack in Lexington, and on sale at auction Sunday, Sept. 28, starting at 8:30 a.m. at the Tattersalls Sales Pavilion. Advance bidding is available at 520-529-2525, or the morning of the sale at 859-422-7253.