DAILY RACING FORM / By Jay Hovdey / February 15, 2012
When last we visited the agonies of Nina Kaiser, she was tearing at her close-cropped hair over the finer points of a life-size sculpture of two-time Horse of the Year and all-around folk hero John Henry. Figuring the eyes of racing history were looking over her shoulder at every turn, Kaiser was appropriately intimidated, but somehow she came through, as anyone will testify who has seen the final product presiding over the north rim of the Kingsbury Fountain in the paddock gardens of Santa Anita Park.
To those who have followed Kaiser’s career, and who have come to acknowledge her as the finest sculptor of the equine form since John Skeaping, the success of the John Henry work was no surprise. The statue’s unveiling on Santa Anita’s opening day in late December of 2009 was an emotional event that brought a tear to the eye of John Henry’s trainer, Ron McAnally, who kept looking up at the bronze representation of his champion as if it might spring gloriously to life.
The public debut of the John Henry statue came close to upstaging the live entertainment that afternoon, which included a cracking good renewal of the Malibu Stakes and a public parade by Zenyatta, who was taking a bow in what was assumed to be her farewell appearance in the wake of her victory at Santa Anita in the running of the Breeders’ Cup Classic during the 2009 Oak Tree meet.
Zenyatta put on her usual grand, hammy show that day, prancing and posing, then sauntered back to the barn. Retirement supposedly was at hand, but hey – things change. By March she was back in harness and on her way to a 2010 Horse of the Year campaign.
When the end of Zenyatta’s racing career finally came, and she went into retirement as the most exciting Thoroughbred to call Southern California home since, well, John Henry himself, there were any number of suggestions put forth as fitting commemorations. My favorite was the renaming of the 210 freeway running parallel to the Santa Anita stretch, just north of the racetrack. More traditional nominees included a stakes race, a scholarship or a restaurant, but in the end there was only one sensible choice.
There had to be a statue, life-size, presented with impact equal to Kaiser’s John Henry.
Fortunately, Kaiser was available for the job. In fact, she had created a 14-inch high Zenyatta bronze on her own in early 2011, without commission, and was gratified by its critical and commercial success.
But the difference between a limited-edition tabletop bronze and the 100 percent life-size manifestation of a great racehorse is considerable, from the standpoint not only of production and aesthetics, but also its impact as a cultural phenomenon. The corresponding parts of the statue’s image must embrace the vivid memory of the flesh and blood version. Any flaw in measurement or proportion is magnified, just as it’s positioning outdoors becomes vital, as three-dimensional public art, in its ultimate appreciation.
So far, so good.
Outside a converted garage, on the property of a hilltop estate in the northern San Diego County town of Escondido, Kaiser could be found on a morning last weekend staring critically at her version of Zenyatta.
“Talk about pressure,” Kaiser protested. “Zenyatta wasn’t just the most photographed horse in history. She was probably the most photographed animal in history.”
Given the digital age in which Zenyatta reigned, replete with camera-phones and handy imaging gizmos, Kaiser is probably right. This reporter snapped off a couple hundred of the big girl himself.
“Honoring her size and dimensions, at first it felt a little like a construction project,” Kaiser said. “I measured her, of course. In height, she goes a 17-1 and a nickel. But what really amazes me is her heart girth.”
By Kaiser’s tape, the 6-year-old version of Zenyatta girthed 78 inches. By comparison, the girths of the many champions measured by Dr. Manuel Gilman of New York included Seattle Slew (76 inches), Secretariat (76 inches) and Forego (77 1/2 inches).
Mounted on a wheeled pallet, supported by fitted steel piping, Kaiser’s modeling clay version of Zenyatta was approaching the finishing touches. Soon the artist will be sending her work off to the foundry for mold casting, pouring and the final patina work that will make the metal glow with a life of its own.
“My goal is to include her dapples,” Kaiser added, heaping upon herself another layer of pressure. “I’m not sure she’d be Zenyatta without those dapples.”
Kaiser’s patrons in Santa Anita management are starting to get giddy with anticipation. President George Haines sees this as a legacy moment in the history of the track.
“You’ve seen the lines of fans on weekends waiting to get their picture taken with the Seabiscuit and John Henry statues,” Haines said. “From a public relations standpoint, honoring Zenyatta in this manner was a no-brainer. In fact, it’s Santa Anita that’s honored.
“We originally thought about timing the unveiling with Zenyatta delivering her first foal in March. But the more we thought about it, the more we liked the idea of the fall meet, and having her in place when the racing world arrives for the Breeders’ Cup.”
The Zenyatta statue will be installed at the south rim of the Kingsbury Fountain, opposite John Henry, and positioned to greet fans as they enter through the main grandstand gates. She will be facing eastward, hard by the path taken by horses walking from the barns to the paddock for their races, Her pose will be instantly familiar, vibrant and stirring.
“You hope for that moment when the work comes to life for you,” Kaiser said. “It happened for me and her when I finished working one day, and in walking away I unconsciously gave her a slap on the hip and said goodbye.
“She’s my ‘War and Peace,’” Kaiser added. “It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done, and the most important.”