Friday, May 4, 2012

From Chadds Ford to Louisville

Union Rags w/ Julien Leparoux up
Photo courtesy of Frances J. Karon
There are a few topics that can rouse the blood in my family, one of them is whether or not something is art. It can become a kind of "hide the cutlery" kerfuffle at times. These discussions typically include eye rolling, head shaking, and dismissive hand gestures. In the end, it's all in good fun, and there are even many artists whom we can agree on as being masters of their medium. Three generations of the Wyeth family fall into that category.

I'm not sure which N.C. Wyeth illustration was the first one that I saw, but it would likely have been in the company of something by Wyeth's mentor, Howard Pyle, two of my father's favorite artists when he was young. He grew up with illustrated classics like Robin Hood, Kidnapped, Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island--early volumes that contained the visually captivating illustrations of N.C. Wyeth. Needless to say, the name Wyeth--be it N.C., Andrew, or Jamie--has been part of my personal mental art catalog for most of my life. As a youngster with a camera, looking for a 4-H photography project, I had one of Andrew Wyeth's stark and melancholy Pennsylvania barns in the back of my head as inspiration. I have no doubt that part of my love of landscape photography and painting is because of the early influence of seeing those Wyeth paintings. The dearth of color, the composition, and certainly the rural subject matter all resonate strongly with me to this day. The cool realism of Andrew Wyeth, in particular, belies a stoicism and stubbornness that I find appealing.

So what about the horse, I can hear you asking. Well, on the best days, I think, the things we love intersect, connect, and collide. And it is one of these happy synchronicities that brings me to the stunningly handsome colt in the above photograph, Union Rags. I am absolutely whiz-bang, heart-poundingly in love with this horse, though I should think that after looking at him that would go without saying. Every couple of years a horse comes along that I just fall for, head-over-heels (witness Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, Black Caviar.) Oh, and his owner? Phyllis Wyeth, wife of Jamie Wyeth of that aforementioned artistic clan. His trainer? Olympic silver-medal winning equestrian and phenomenal all-around horseman Michael Matz.

Honestly, I think Union Rags is pretty easy to love, regardless of his connections. He's as handsome a horse as I've ever seen. My friends who have been fortunate enough to see him in person all confirm that his presence is one that makes you a little weak in the knees. Some horses just have that charisma, they don't require any theatrics or devices, they are genuine athletes who can render mere mortals breathless and speechless by their speed, grace, and strength.

Obviously, I'd love Union Rags to win the Kentucky Derby, easily the most talked about race of the year in the United States, but win or lose, I'm a fan. I have no doubt that he'll be as ready as he can be, but in the 20 horse stampede that is the chaotic start of the Derby, it's rather unlikely that any one horse gets the right trip to match his racing style. True, the great ones usually find a way to win, but it still requires more than a little bit of luck. More importantly, as a racing fan, I want to see him run to his ability and come out of the race well. I want to see him race more, especially a little farther Belmont Park, maybe, or, better yet, Saratoga. Union Rags at Saratoga where he ran so magnificently on the sloppiest of days last summer...that's a wonderful thought. I hope Union Rags is a star that we get to see run a strong and competitive 3-year-old campaign.

If you have yet to fully fall for this stunning colt, spend a few minutes watching this video on his story...

If you're in the northeast, visit Connecticut's Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford where there are two Wyeth-related exhibits up at present. Andrew Wyeth: Looking Beyond and James Welling: Wyeth are both up until late July.

Special thanks to Frances J. Karon (her blog, with many more wonderful photographs is for generously allowing me to use the beautiful photo of Union Rags at the top of this post.