Del Mar mural artist knows racetrack figures well

Artist Pierre “Peb” Bellocq was three-quarters of the way through painting a 30-foot-long mural depicting 70 years of thoroughbred horse racing at Del Mar when he realized something was missing.

“The sea! I forgot about the ocean,” Bellocq said.

The longtime cartoonist for the Daily Racing Form was able to seamlessly squeeze in the surf alongside the turf, grandstand and 113 of the track’s most colorful and influential characters.

“Here it is, everything that is Del Mar,” said Joe Harper, chief executive officer of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. “Blue sky, the ocean, palm trees and a whole lot of neat people.”

The thoroughbred club commissioned the piece in honor of Del Mar’s 70th season, which opened July 22 and runs through Sept. 9. Harper helped select the mural’s cast of celebrities, jockeys, trainers, owners, horses and other famous figures “who have had a significant impact on Del Mar, or Del Mar has had a significant impact on them.”

There’s been so many since 1937, from founders Bing Crobsy and Pat O’Brien, to today’s familiar faces, including jockey Victor Espinoza, trainer Doug O’Neill and owners Sid and Jenny Craig.

“The hard part was where to draw the line,” Harper said.

From research to the final touches, the mural took 18 months to complete. It now hangs in the entrance to the track’s Clubhouse and Turf Club for all to enjoy.

“I want people to look at this and say ‘we love racing,’” Bellocq said, who has painted four other murals in his signature caricature style for Churchill Downs, Belmont Park and Gallagher’s Steakhouse in New York City.

Bellocq, 82, has been drawing and painting since he was a boy growing up around the racetracks in southwestern France and Paris, where his father was a jockey. He found he loved cartoons and caricatures because “it’s full of jokes in it you have to discover.”

Viewers will find Bellocq’s humor throughout the Del Mar mural. For example, Dare And Go, the horse who beat out favorite Cigar in the 1996 Pacific Classic, is puffing a cigar.

Bellocq immigrated to America in 1954 when he had landed the cartoonist job at the Daily Racing Forum. He has been commenting on the beauty and darker aspects of American horse racing ever since.

During the past 55 years, Bellocq has drawn many of the individuals in the Del Mar mural for his cartoons. Whatever stage in life he drew them is how they are portrayed in the mural.

For the Hollywood celebrities who were gone before he arrived in the states, Bellocq used photographs. That’s why viewers will easily recognize Lucille Ball from her days on “I Love Lucy,” but her husband, Desi Arnaz, is depicted after his dark hair had turned to grey.

“I wanted to paint them the way I saw them,” Bellocq said.

It’s not the size of the canvas or the sheer number of people Bellocq finds challenging to paint, it’s accurately capturing the likeness of people he’s never met, especially celebrities.

“I didn’t want to goof about them so people will say ‘who is that?’” Bellocq said.

Actress Ava Gardner, a regular at the Del Mar racetrack, posed a particular challenge. Bellocq’s wife had posters of the actress on her girlhood bedroom wall and told him his depiction of her was a flop. After she brought home library books about Gardner and Bellocq worked on his drawing a little more, she finally gave her stamp of approval.

“I spent more time with Ava Gardner than with most of them,” he said.

But more than any one individual, Belloqc said he strove to convey the excitement and colorfulness of racing at Del Mar.

“It’s cheerful here – people are smiling, which is different from New York and Paris,” he said. “I wanted to give this atmosphere of joy.”