Close your eyes for a minute and imagine the scene: Barbaro is roaring down the stretch for his runaway victory in the 2006 Kentucky Derby.
“I wanted Barbaro elevated up in the air where he’s at the top of his game,” says 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.”
King’s bronze likeness of the famed Chester County colt is the focal point of Barbaro’s official memorial and burial site unveiled to the public at Kentucky’s venerable Churchill Downs on April 26. The statue is located outside Gate 1 near the entrance to the Kentucky Derby Museum. Barbaro’s ashes were interred beneath the bronze by a large magnolia tree.
A homebred of Roy and Gretchen Jackson’s Lael Stables outside West Grove, Barbaro shattered his right hind leg in the opening strides of the Preakness Stakes three years ago this month. His eight-month battle for survival at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center in Kennett Square drew an outpouring of nationwide support and brought renewed attention to track safety and racehorse injuries. Barbaro was euthanized due to complications in January 2007.
King was one of a select group of 10 artists who submitted one-third-scale clay models for the Jacksons to evaluate. Her small, bronzed “marquette” was the first one Gretchen Jackson viewed. She thought it best depicted the colt. “When I saw Alexa’s statue, it made my heart pound,” says Jackson, who bred, raised and raced Barbaro with her husband, Roy. “The statue was exactly how I pictured it looking in my mind.”
King’s creation measures 15 feet in length from tail to nose and 10.5 feet from the surface of the track to the top of jockey Edgar Prado’s head. All four legs off the ground, Barbaro is racing a couple paths off the rail with Prado hunched over the steely colt’s back. Look closely, and you can see a single-minded expression on Barbaro’s face, his stride displaying an immense skeletal twist—one hip down a bit, the other slightly raised.
“All the models were beautiful, but with Alexa’s, you couldn’t take your eyes off it,” says 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 I, it was a real education,” Roy admits. “We had no idea how complicated the bronze process was. We’ve followed the progress on Alexa’s website and made a trip up to her studio.”
Born in Muncie, Ind., 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. When her father was named post commander at the Army’s Camp Atterbury in the southern part of her home state, horses came into King’s life. She connected immediately with them, spending countless hours riding the tank trails and fording streams over the 31,000 acres.
“We were the only family living there and had access to all these riding areas when the troops weren’t there,” King, 55, recalls. “There was a lot of fantastic wildlife. It just made for a very unique time when I was in my late teens.”
King discovered the power of three-dimensional forms at Indiana’s 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 Collection in New York City, her career took off. “Thoroughbred Mare and Foal” was auctioned at Sotheby’s in 2001.
The artist has rendered trophies for the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and the United States Equestrian Federation’s Horse of the Year Award. Earlier this year, she completed a 9-foot outdoor bronze and tableau set at the entrance to the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine. Her portrait bronze, “Saluter,” will be installed at the Virginia Gold Cup in the Plains.
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. That lifelong interest has given her a keen sense of the importance of form to function. “The connection has given me the ability to imbue in my sculptures the inescapable courage and character horses possess,” she says.
How did she go about landing the Barbaro project? “I just went after it,” King says. “Honestly, I believed all along that I would get the commission.”
King’s remarkable sculptures are a testament to her incredible attention to detail and countless hours of research. “I do a lot of background work because I have to build this thing from the inside out,” she explains. “It’s not just: Look at something and do it. 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 few dozen people, from the Jacksons, jockey Prado and his trainer Michael Matz to anonymous folks 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,” she says. “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 racing photographs and videos, and studied a series of photos by noted English photographer Edward J. Muybridge, known as “Horse in Motion.” 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 relates. “Then I spoke with Michael [Matz], and he put it at more like 16 inches—so that was built into the design.”
The piece was too large for the studio at her Wisconsin home, so King set up shop in a garage that was originally built to hold a sailboat. For the armature (the steel structure supporting the clay model), a welder built King the form out of the rebar that holds everything in place. She then cut large sheets of insulation foam into the desired shape, glued it all together, planed it back, and created the form of the horse and jockey.
Next came the detailing of the clay model, which King accomplished with her hands, fingers and clay tools. 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 notes. “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.”
All told, more than 300 pounds of clay were used in the model. When it cools, the material is easily carved to integrate the detail that such a piece demands.
When the model was completed last fall, mold makers from Bronze Services arrived to cut it into roughly 20 pieces, which were shipped to their foundry in Loveland, Colo. 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’s the first time 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,” says Roy Jackson. “It captured what Barbaro loved to do best—run fast.”
To view more of Alexa King’s work, visit alexakingstudios.com.