Painter Jason Roberts has turned his eye towards equine immortality.
LITTLE more than a year ago, Jason Roberts had been to Flemington maybe once in his life, and had next to no interest in horse racing. Now, he can't wait to get to the track, and finds a winner everywhere he looks.
''Something just switched … the thoroughbreds, they're just sensational animals - muscular but lean, beautiful, elegant animals with incredibly expressive faces,'' he says. Where others leave the course with crumpled suits and empty wallets, Roberts bounces away with ''a suite of paintings'' galloping around in his head. Racing, it seems, offers more surety of return for a painter than a punter.
Roberts' exhibition, The Sport of Kings, brings the form guide to life on Collins Street Gallery's walls. Vignettes of Americain and So You Think - ''the two most impressive horses I've seen'' - sit opposite the English superstar Frankel, Apache Cat's white face and Manighar's grey visage. It also documents moments in time.
His work for the exhibition coincided with Black Caviar's migration from sports pages to front pages; with Royal Ascot on the horizon, Roberts thought, ''Someone's going to want to see this painted.'' The gallery sent him to England, and thanks to some fortuitous access, he found himself on the fence just beyond the winning post.
By a Nose! records the moment Luke Nolen thought he had the race won, eased forward up in the irons, and very nearly lost a place in history.
''I hadn't felt tense beforehand, but there was a huge sense of relief after the race,'' Roberts says. The prospect that Black Caviar's first defeat would have made the moment even bigger makes him chuckle. ''Yes, but I don't know that anyone would have wanted to buy that.''
For 15 years, Roberts painted wildlife and natural history - grizzly bears and eagles in America, koalas and parrots around Australia. Rural subjects - cattle, sheep, bushland scenes. Three previous shows were devoted to architecture; ''renderings of facades and views up and down Melbourne's beautiful boulevards''.
More recently he painted castles and forts for the maharajah of Jodhpur, one of which had been turned into a stable for Marwari horses, the strikingly beautiful Rajasthan warrior breed. ''I got back to Melbourne and just followed my nose,'' he says of the leap to racehorses, boasting equine experience no broader than painting people's ponies. ''I can't look at paddock horses any more.''
He works largely from his own photos, and will be buzzing about at Flemington this week building his reference library. Some paintings, such as Black Caviar being led out at Ascot watched by two gents in top hats and tails, are composites of multiple images. Others are easily sited by their background; the Buddhist temple and docks cranes buttressing Black Caviar and Hay List's Lightning Stakes Duel in the Sun, the cars that took an eternity to fill the Caulfield infield in By Three Lengths.
The contrast between corporatised Australian racing and the purity of scenes at faraway courses is stark. Booze and TV sponsorships fill local fences, the names of studs and airlines the saddle cloths. In Across the Curragh, the backdrop is a plain white fence and green, rolling hills; bold white numbers are all that is etched on black saddle cloths in Riding Out at Goodwood.
Mounted Up shows horses and their riders in the Caulfield mounting yard, a co-existence that fascinates the artist. ''We see horses amongst people, scenes that would have been really common in our streets 100 years ago. Today, the racetrack is one of the few places where people and animals - such big animals - interact so intimately.''
Roberts cites the work of George Stubbs, the 18th century English painter, but reckons there has been little equine art of note in recent times. ''I wanted to throw my hat in the ring.''
Along the way his architectural bent stoked the imagining of future works; he'd seen engravings of a long-lost Victorian grandstand and canopy at Flemington, and walking the track, noticed that its bluestone ramparts remain. A marriage of Ascot crowd scenes and the Flemington of another time is on his radar.
The Sport of Kings was his first real dalliance with people portraiture, and he was drawn to the faces of jockeys, so lean that their bone structure is accentuated. Christophe Lemaire and Gerald Mosse are quiet, pensive studies atop their mounts Dunaden and Americain before last year's Cup. ''They've got great faces, the Gallic profiles.''
The cloud of impropriety over key racing players saddened him, but he doesn't think it will be permanently tarnished. So much time studying horses left him fascinated at what goes through their minds on race day, whether these flight animals run in part through fear. He sees their veins ''popping up everywhere'', as they return to the mounting yard, their red eyes, is convinced that at least the horses are trying.
He'd love to see Americain win again; Roberts didn't recognise Black Caviar the first time he saw her, but the French galloper has a presence and attitude that moves him. Studying form rather than the form has left him hopeful for the locals, too.
''I loved the look of Ethiopia the other day. I'll probably back him.''