"Zenyatta Sculptor's Bay Area Roots"

Photo: Courtesy Benoit Photo

Photo: Courtesy Benoit Photo

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE  /  By Larry Stumes  /  September 29, 2012

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Nina Kaiser, who grew up in Los Altos, has parlayed a career as a thoroughbred exercise rider with an innate ability in art to become a world-renowned equine sculptor.

Her latest effort - and greatest, if you consider the year she spent on it, the detail and the popularity of the subject - is a life-size sculpture of the great mare Zenyatta that will be unveiled Saturday in Santa Anita's Paddock Gardens.

"It's the hardest thing I've done on so many levels," Kaiser said in a telephone interview. "The size, the importance and how much I and everybody loved her."

A huge horse, Zenyatta won the first 19 races of her career, including the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic, and lost only her final start by a head to Blame in the 2010 Classic. Now 8, she is a broodmare at Lane's End Farm in Kentucky.

Her likeness will stand near those of two other thoroughbred greats: Seabiscuit and John Henry. Kaiser's sculpture of John Henry was unveiled in 2009.

"I look at John Henry and wonder why I did this and I should have done this and that," Kaiser said. "Let's just say I learned on him; Zenyatta was a higher mountain to climb."

John Henry retired in 1985, which made Kaiser's job easier than her portrayal of Zenyatta.

"My re-creation of him could almost supersede him because it's been so long since he ran," she said. "But she's the most photographed animal in history. You can't get away with anything because she's still in everybody's mind. I wanted to give people the closest experience to seeing her in real life."

Kaiser, who now lives in the unincorporated town of Del Dios near San Diego, loved horses from a young age and dropped out of high school to find work at Bay Area racetracks.

"I started my first job as a hot-walker at Bay Meadows and I went through the routine of groom and exercise rider," she said. "I moved to Southern California and worked at almost every track in America and some in Europe. I would say I exercised horses off and on for 30 years, until about seven years ago.

"I was happy doing that, but what are you going to do when you get older? I was a junior art champion, and people already were successful doing painting, so I decided to give sculpture a try. People around the track were generous to give me commissions to do sculptures and trophies. I get asked to do dogs and people, but there are other people who are better at that. I wanted to be the best doing a racehorse."