"Bringing Zenyatta to Life"

THOROUGHBRED INSIDER  /  By Eliya Finkelstein  /  April 1, 2018

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It was the end of another long day; another long day in a year-long process that Nina Kaiser spent devoted to the enormous clay sculpture that stood in her studio.

Her body was tired from throwing her weight into the enormous hunk of synthetic earth draped and slammed and pushed against the wire frame she created, what seemed like, eons ago. She had been molding intricate lines, perfect angles, and minute details that would slowly bring this brick of nothingness to life.

Her mind was exhausted. This piece held more weight than anything she had created before.

This bronze statue represented a queen who held the hearts of more fans than any other.

This one had to be just perfect.

As the sun began to set outside the walls of her artists’ haven, Nina called it a day. There had been enough struggle, compromise, satisfaction, and progress for today. As she turned off the light she reached up into the darkness and lay a gentle pat on the horse’s hind end and then stopped dead in her tracks.

“Woah, what did you just do?” She asked herself. The gesture, so natural and common as a parting moment with the real horses in her life, came just as naturally to this lifeless hunk of clay. A smile, and sense of relief, spread through Nina.

Zenyatta was alive.

Nina Kaiser is the artist who created the Zenyatta statue at Santa Anita, as well as the life-size John Henry statue and the Chris McCarron and Laffit Pincay Jr. busts. The incredible signature lifelike reproductions of iconic horses that she creates can be attributed to her years as an exercise rider before she was a sculptor. “I was always a horseman first and foremost,” she says. “I started working on a racetrack as soon as I could find my way on to working there. When I found out that you got paid to ride horses, that’s all I ever wanted to do.”

When outside pressures starting creeping in of what Nina was “going to do with her life,” the idea of being an artist seemed incredibly appealing. Though the market was inundated with painters, artists who effectively created realistic bronze sculptures – especially life-size horses – were scarce. Nina’s life as a horseman and desire to create art seemed to marry seamlessly.

Self-taught, the intricacies and techniques of bronze sculpture took some time to navigate, but her racetrack family was fiercely supportive of her work. “Bronze sculpture is very expensive,” she points out, “so if I hadn’t had the support of a lot of clients early on – who possibly didn’t know what they were getting in to – it would not have been so easy for me.”

With continuing support and recognition, Nina’s work grew to represent horses all over the world, from her first commission of 1987 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Trempolino to Dubai World Cup winner and international superstar, Animal Kingdom. But when the great Zenyatta retired, talk quickly turned of how to honor the Southern Californian mare, and only one option seemed adequate: a life size replica at the south end of Kingsbury Fountain just steps inside the gates of Santa Anita. A piece that would cause even the rookie horse fan to draw in a quick breath in awe.

The importance of this particular commission was not lost on Nina; forever the racehorse fan, she had created a very small piece of Zenyatta that was widely well received. “People started ordering it,” she recalls, “but I still have a shoebox full of letters and I remember the phone calls about how Zenyatta had changed their lives, how they felt about her. So it was just such a responsibility, I felt, at trying to not fail at her.” When John Sherriffs opened the barn doors to Zenyatta, Nina took advantage of studying the athlete. She spent time analyzing every fiber of Zenyatta’s being, from the look in her eyes and the texture of her mane to the length from her shoulder to her knee and knee to fetlock. No hair left unturned, Nina was determined to do the fans – and Zenyatta herself – justice. By the time she was finished, fans could stand next to the exact copy of their icon.

“That’s the fun part to me,” Nina says. “It’s like my Pinocchio moment, putting that detail in. Sculpture isn’t all that fun; there’s enough heartaches to balance out the good part but the fun part is putting the veins in and getting the muscular detail just right, which to me, brings it to life. That part I really enjoy – and that’s the part that keeps me in it. What keeps me eager to go out and work on it more is to get to that point when I get to breath life into it. Now it’s sort of become my trademark, that I try to make them as realistic as possible. I’m not going to improve on God’s most beautiful racehorse, so all I can try to do is try to represent them as closely as possible.”

Beyond the astonishing similarity, physically, there is something else in the Zenyatta statue that brings people to a stop when they enter Santa Anita. Zenyatta, as they see her there, is not just a bronze replica. Something about the monument to the great racehorse brings about the same feelings as when fans stood rail side during her racing days. There’s a lump that creeps into one’s throat – a reminder of what she gave us in her time on the track. A reminder of the way she so effortlessly glided past her competition in victory –  a mare unrivaled.

On any given day at Santa Anita, if you watch for a while, someone will approach Nina’s bronze Zenyatta as she glows in the afternoon California sun: a passer-by, an admirer, a fan, a devoted lover of the great mare. Photos are snapped, stories told, and memories recalled in her shadow, for Nina’s statue is also our statue. It is every fan’s statue. Nina didn’t just give us a bronze replica of a horse. No, she gave us a shrine where we gather in recollection and a statue that was brought to life by our love of our sport – and of our Queen.

Photo of Nina Kaiser with her creation at the unveiling of Zenyatta’s statue at Santa Anita Racetrack by Charles Pravata and our friends at Eclipse Sportswire.