by Terry Conway
Close your eyes for a minute. Imagine the scene. Barbaro is roaring down the stretch in his 6 ½-length runaway victory in the 2006 Kentucky Derby.
"I wanted Barbaro elevated up in the air where he's at the top of his game," related equine sculptor Alexa King. "As fast as he was running in that stretch run, I had to do everything I could to make him look like a bullet whizzing by."
The bronze statue is the focal point of Barbaro's official memorial and burial site that will be unveiled to the public at Churchill Downs on April 26. The statue is located outside Churchill Downs' Gate 1 and near the entrance to the Kentucky Derby Museum. Barbaro's ashes will be interred beneath the bronze by a large magnolia tree.
A homebred of Roy and Gretchen Jackson's Lael Stables outside West Grove, Pa., the handsome bay colt shattered his right hind leg in the opening strides of the 2006 Preakness Stakes. Nine months later he was euthanized due to complications from laminitis.
"Churchill Downs is proud to have been chosen as Barbaro's final resting place and this outstanding memorial is certain to become a popular year-round gathering place for horse lovers throughout the world," said Churchill Downs' general manager Jim Gates.
King was one of a select group of ten artists who submitted one-third-scale model clay replicas for the Jacksons to evaluate in April of 2008. Her small bronzed model— or marquette---- was the first one Gretchen Jackson viewed and thought best depicted the colt.
"When I saw Alexa's statue, it made my heart pound," said Gretchen Jackson, who bred, raised and raced Barbaro with her husband, Roy. "The statue was exactly how I pictured it looking in my mind."
The statue measures 15 feet in length from tail to nose and 10 ½-feet from the surface of the track to the top of Edgar Prado's head. All four legs off the ground, Barbaro is racing a couple paths off the rail with jockey Prado hunched over the steely colt. Look closely and you can see a single-minded expression on Barbaro's face, the colt's soft mouth chews on the bit. His stride displays an immense twist of his skeleton: one hip is down slightly, while the other is slightly raised.
"All the models were beautiful, but with Alexa's you couldn't take your eyes off it," related Leonard Lusky, who managed the famed Secretariat sculpture project. "For a static sculpture, it moved. It really did. Barbaro was a horse brimming with power and confidence. Alexa nailed it."
"For Gretchen and me it was a real education," admitted Roy Jackson. "We had no idea how complicated the whole bronze process was. We've followed the progress on Alexa's website and made a trip up to her studio."
Born in Muncie, Indiana, King came to her art at an early age. Influenced by her parent's artistic talents, she developed an eye for form and dynamism expressed through drawings, pastels and oils.
King discovered the power of three-dimensional forms at Ball State University. Gradually she transferred her expression from clay to bronze, staging a one-woman show at a gallery in Scottsdale, Ariz. in 1981. After sculpting the "Pony Express" series for the Nelson Rockefeller Collections, in New York City, her career took off.
"Thoroughbred Mare and Foal," was auctioned at Sotheby's Important Sporting Art in 2001. The artist has rendered trophies for the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and the USEF Horse of the Year Award. Earlier this year she completed a nine-foot outdoor bronze and tableau set at the entrance to the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine. Her portrait bronze of "Saluter" will be installed at the Virginia Gold Cup, Plains, Va.
An affable woman with a warm laugh, King has bred and raised top-level English Hackney and American Saddlebred horses for more than two decades in Wisconsin and Kentucky. Her life-long interest in the horse has given her a keen eye for observation of the importance of form to function of these athletes.
"I think that connection has given me the ability to imbue in my sculptures the inescapable courage and character horses posses," she said.
King's remarkable sculptures are a testament to the artist's incredible attention to detail that spawns from countless hours of research.
"I do a lot of background research because I have to build this thing from the inside out," explained King. "It's not just, look at something and do it," she explained. "I have to make it anatomically correct from the beginning or it will never look like the subject."
For the Barbaro piece she interviewed a couple dozen people from the Jacksons, jockey Prado and his trainer Michael Matz to anonymous folks who were touched by the enormity of the champion's story.
"With portraiture, it's really important to find out how these people think and feel about this animal," said King.
"Mrs. Jackson told me right off the bat that Barbaro loved to race. I told her that when I did the statue of this horse, I would express his physicality, what he looked like as a thoroughbred. You need to be able to tell that's Barbaro from a distance."
King also pored through scores of photographs and videos of the colt racing. Some of the best were a series of photos by noted English photographer Edward J. Muybridge. The photos are known as "Horse in Motion," where Muybridge was the first to prove that all four legs are off the ground while a horse gallops.
"Initially I determined that Barbaro was about a foot off the ground," King related. "Then I spoke with Michael (Matz) and he put it at more like 16 inches so that was built into the design."
In one photo Barbaro's nostrils are flared wildly as he pulls air in, re-energizing his stride.
"So he's breathing in and then he's going to step back down on the track and push his stride forward," King explained. "He's getting oxygen back in all those muscles then he's shooting himself forward again. It's really cool.
"There are muscles on his hips and stresses on his tendons that I'll accentuate on that lower left hind leg. It will get that message across of him moving forward."
Too large to fit in her studio at her Wisconsin home, King set up shop in the garage (with 14-foot ceilings) that was originally built to hold a sailboat. The armature (steel structure supporting the clay model) began when a welder built King the form out of rebar that holds everything in place. King then cut four-feet by eight-feet sheets of insulation foam into the shape of the horse, glued it all together, planed it back and created the form of the horse and jockey.
Next came the detailing of the clay model that King accomplished by using her hands, fingers, and clay tools with sharp cutting edges. As she applied clay to the model, King also cut back the areas that define the surface of the model. Specially made steel looped tools allowed her to smooth the surfaces.
"The final application of clay energizes the surface of the model which is so important in a sculpture of a running horse," King noted. "It's a hands-on process, sculpting a statue of this size; bulking out the figure takes a lot of wax based clay which is heated under lamps to facilitate the ease of application to the model."
When it cools, the material is easily carved to integrate the detail that a piece such as Barbaro demands. More than 300 pounds of clay were used in the model.
When the model was completed last fall, mold makers from Bronze Services arrived to cut it into roughly 20 pieces that were shipped to their foundry in Loveland, Colorado. The pieces were cast in bronze and welded back together into the life-size sculpture.
The statue is attached to a horizontal bronze rail that will support the 1,500-pound artwork, creating the impression that Barbaro and his rider are suspended in air. It is the first time that an equine statue of this size and scope has been presented in this manner, with all four of the horse's feet off the ground.
"That's how we remember him," said Roy Jackson. "It captured what Barbaro loved to do best, run fast. The sculpture will be something that really honors him and all his fans can stop by Churchill Downs to pay their respects."
To contact horseracing writer Terry Conway, email email@example.com