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Statue required engineering and artistry

As soon as she was picked to immortalize the late Derby winner Barbaro, artist Alexa King knew no ordinary statue would do.

Barbaro's owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, wanted to capture him at the height of his glory, streaking through the Churchill Downs homestretch, all four feet off the ground, permanently in flight.

"That was the task at hand — put this horse up in the air," King said. Most horses are posed with at least two feet on the ground. King and Churchill Downs think Barbaro's statute, which will be unveiled Sunday, may be the only one in the world of its kind at this scale.

To do it took as much engineering as artistry.

"I made hundreds of calculations," King said. The piece is huge — 10 feet tall, with Barbaro and his jockey, Edgar Prado, weighing in at 2,195 pounds of bronze and armature at 1.25 times life-sized, she said. The whole thing is supported by a length of rail, braced with 4,900 pounds of steel, also covered in bronze, and will be grounded in 20-foot-long granite base.


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She worked non-stop on sculpting the statue for 51/2 months, putting in eight to 12 hours a day. In the middle of everything, she moved her home and studio from Wisconsin to Versailles.

Because she had never seen Barbaro in real life, let alone on the track, King worked from photographs and videos, researching Barbaro's every movement to get a sense of how he would look in flight from every angle.

To get the feel of his body right, King contacted a veterinarian from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Mark Markel, who had consulted with Barbaro's surgeon, Dr. Dean Richardson in Pennsylvania, to go over the piece. "I was so glad to have someone who had seen this horse go over his anatomy," King said.

She waited to do the head last, keeping it covered with a towel. "If I do the head first, I'll keep looking at his face, I'll be drawn to his face," she said.

A TV cameraman told her how Barbaro would come up alongside another horse and look him in the eye before passing him. So she sculpted in his innate confidence. "His expression wouldn't have been 'straining to win.' At that point he was gliding to a win," she said. "The piece needs to look like it's effortless."

She also had help from Barbaro's trainer, Michael Matz, who sent her his bridle. "As soon as I pulled that thing out of the box, and saw that white shadow roll, (the emotion) hit me," King said. She took the bridle to the foundry in Colorado where the bronze was cast so she could make sure the finished version, which had to be built onto the larger-than-life-sized statue, matched the original.

"I wanted to make sure I caught him, not only his physicality but his personality," King said. The work passed its biggest test — the Jacksons — with flying colors. Gretchen Jackson saw the statue while it was still molded clay, just in case King needed to resculpt anything. "She said, 'It's perfect.' So there weren't any changes," King said.

Sunday she will learn what the fans think. They have been following the piece on her Web site but this is the first complete viewing.

"In public art, it becomes something that people consider to be their own," she said, "and if I can accomplish that, I'll have done my job."

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