Kentucky Derby Art: French Cartoon Style
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this clubhouse mural depicts every winning jockey in Kentucky Derby history.
By Molly Fosco
Pierre Bellocq had grand ambitions for the mural he had been commissioned to paint in the clubhouse of Churchill Downs Racetrack. Back in 2004, the French cartoonist, who is almost universally known as Peb, aimed to depict every winner of the Kentucky Derby from 1875 on — 96 jockeys in all at that time. The artist, now 91, had 36 feet of linear space to work with, and he intended to make every inch count. After months of research and planning, he put brush to plaster and began the task of capturing America’s greatest equestrians in colorful caricatures.
Officials of the iconic racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky, had chosen an artist who certainly knew his subject. Growing up in Maisons-Laffitte, northwest of Paris, Bellocq had horse racing in his blood. His father was a jockey and a breeder, and his grandfather bred horses as well. As a young boy, Peb began sketching riders and their mounts at the local racetrack, where his father worked.
Peb spent months meticulously researching every Derby winner, mostly trying to get the brightly colored racing silks just right.
In 1954, Bellocq moved to the U.S. when the owner of the Laurel Park track in Maryland contracted him to create artwork for the first running of the Washington, D.C., International Stakes. A year later, he was hired as the cartoonist for the Daily Racing Form and its sister paper, the Morning Telegraph, a position he would hold for the next half-century. Bellocq’s drawings were always rife with equestrian-themed jokes: The caption for a cartoon of a man next to several unusually long-nosed steeds reads “I concentrate on photo-finish breeding.”
If he weren’t so bewitched by horse racing, it’s likely that Bellocq could have been an exceptional political cartoonist. In fact, for a time, he contributed political drawings to The Philadelphia Inquirer in addition to racing cartoons. But horses have always been the artist’s first love, and ultimately he dedicated his life’s work to the animals and their riders.
In 2001, Churchill Downs began a massive renovation project that ended up costing more than $300 million. But it wasn’t just the seating and bathrooms getting a makeover. A top priority was to include more racing-themed artwork, or “equine art,” as John Asher, vice president of racing communications for the Kentucky Derby, puts it. Bellocq was the obvious choice for artist because of his “intimate knowledge, not only of racing culture but of the jockeys themselves,” says Asher. “He knew some of them personally.”
In his prep work, Bellocq spent months meticulously researching every Derby winner, mostly trying to get the brightly colored racing silks just right, according to Asher. For example, jockey Eddie Arcaro is depicted wearing the “the devil’s red and blue” silks of Calumet Farm, Asher notes, the most successful farm in Derby history (eight wins in all). As a cartoonist, Bellocq also has a knack for capturing faces, including Arcaro’s prominent nose. Not surprisingly, Arcaro “was called ‘the Schnaz’ in his racing days,” says Asher.
Among the winning jockeys Bellocq knew personally was Jimmy Winkfield, one of the few African-Americans to win the Kentucky Derby. Winkfield was also the last African-American to win the race, in 1902, after white jockeys realized how lucrative the sport had become and started excluding Black riders. Winkfield continued his equestrian career as a trainer in Europe, where he met the young Bellocq. “Peb’s connection to these jockeys goes as far back as Winkfield,” says Asher. “He has an incredible amount of institutional knowledge.”
Although the initial mural of jockeys was completed in 2005, Bellocq travels to Churchill Downs each year from his home in Princeton, New Jersey, to add the newest winner to the gallery. If the jockey is already caricatured but is racing for a new owner, he makes sure the winning rider is wearing the correct silks. He also adds the winning trainer to a second mural that goes back to 1875.
And for when Bellocq is no longer able to update the paintings himself, he has a successor in place — his son Rémi is a talented artist who draws in much the same style as his father. Another son, Pierre Bellocq Jr., is a thoroughbred trainer in Southern California.
Bellocq’s artwork is as much a tradition at Churchill Downs as fantastical hats and mint juleps. Asher says he loves watching the mesmerized faces of Derby attendees who see the drawings for the first time. And despite the many renovations at Churchill over the years, “Peb’s [work] hasn’t been touched by anyone except the artist himself,” Asher says. “It’s an enduring part of our history.”