There's something in the eyes, Susan Sommer-Luarca said, cocking her head slightly, acrylic paints held aloft in her technicolored left hand.
Most of the horses whose portraits she's painted in her thriving career have this look about them, like they've been jostled out of a bad dream. But "there's something really different" with California Chrome, she said.
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"It's the only horse that I've painted where his eyes have a calmness in them," she said at her station in the Belmont paddock, hours before Chrome couldn't complete the Triple Crown and finished in a dead heat for fourth. "There's like usually, I don't know, there's a startled look, especially when they're at full speed. But he always looks collected and calm in the eye. I know he's working his heart out, but his eye always seems to be calm."
Sommer-Luarca, Chrome's official painter, began painting horses as a young child growing up on a ranch in Missouri. She painted Barbaro in the 2006 Kentucky Derby, "and ever since then, I've done all the classic races. I've done the Breeders' Cup. I'm the official artist of the Triple Crown and the Preakness and now, California Chrome."
She paints on-site at the races, though most of her studies are culled from videos and pictures. She's got five paintings in her "California Chrome collection," dating to Chrome's win at the Kentucky Derby. One, a black-and-white close-up of California Chrome and jockey Victor Espinoza mid-gallop, will be auctioned to raise money for the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund. The others will be sold.
Two were completed before the race and the final three, including a striking color portrait of Chrome and Espinoza set against a muted sepia background of the previous three Triple Crown winners, were finished on race day. Every single one is done in acrylics because it dries significantly faster than oil paint and, well, when you're exposed to the elements -- equine and otherwise -- it's good to be able to move quickly. "For when you gotta go, for rain or anything else," she said, mid-laugh.
Sommer-Luarca made significant progress Saturday and, by midday, she's putting the finishing touches on Chrome's nose, right below the nasal strip, as he gallops to the backdrop of a waving American flag. Her strokes are delicate and her head, covered in a straw fedora, is bowed down so it looks like she's nuzzling the horse.
Like almost everyone else taken by California Chrome's journey, she's become attached to the unlikely champion, she said.
"I've been around him and his owners and the jockey quite a bit and it's really fun to capture them, knowing them," she said. "Chrome is very smart. I've been around him and everybody knows it, but he's different. He's different."
It's all in the eyes.