I caught up with Pierre Bellocq (Peb) two days before New Year's. "I've only got two days to go," he said on the phone.
Peb's long, lustrous career with the Daily Racing Form and its sister publication, the now-defunct Morning Telegraph, officially ended on December 31, but finis actually came months before, over an uncomfortable lunch in Princeton, New Jersey, and should have become obvious to many of his fans on October 25, the concluding day of the Breeders' Cup. On the front of the Form, where Peb's imaginative take on the big day had been a mainstay since the Breeders' Cup began in 1984, there was a full-page color photo of Curlin.
The hatchet men at the Form let Peb pick the good-bye restaurant, a place near his home. "It was ludicrous," Peb said.
The call had come from Mandy Minger, vice president of marketing.
Peb knew few of those he sat down to break bread with.
"They were the new owners," he said. "They had no idea who I was, and what I had done. It was all about how much I cost. They told me they were going to go with photographs instead of my work. I was shocked."
Two years ago, having turned 80, Peb considered retiring. But he had a far different scenario in mind. He thought that the Form might consider one of his sons as his successor. Remi Bellocq, an apple who didn't fall far from the tree, loves racing and can draw, too.
"I'm not bitter," Pierre Bellocq said, "but I just wish it had been handled better. It was very awkward."
The most identifiable people with the Racing Form from the 1950s through the end of the last century were Peb and Joe Hirsch, the newspaper's star columnist. Between them, they totaled more than 100 years with the Form. Hirsch, because of health considerations, left willingly in 2003. The two of them traveled the country and the world for the Form, Hirsch never running out of column ideas or horse people to interview, and Peb, seen with his drawing pad under trees from Saratoga to Longchamp, caricaturing his way across the racing landscape. Besides their editorial output, they were good-will ambassadors for the newspaper and the game. To be quoted by Hirsch or lampooned by Peb was a feather in the cap for most horsemen.
By his own estimate, Peb has drawn about 4,000 sketches and caricatures for the Form and the Telegraph, beginning with the first one, for the opening day of the old Jamaica track, in April of 1955. He had been a cartoonist and amateur steeplechase jockey in France when John Schapiro, who ran Laurel Race Course, brought him to Maryland to do some art work for the debut of the Washington D.C. International race in 1954. Walter Annenberg, who owned the Form, the Morning Telegraph and the Philadelphia Inquirer, also liked Peb's work, and he never went home. For a time, Peb simultaneously worked for the Form and did political cartoons for the Inquirer, but when new ownership took over the Inquirer in the 1970s, they forced him to concentrate on their paper or the Form, and he opted for racing. He was given an Eclipse Award in 1980 for his contributions to the sport.
When he spoke to me the other day, Peb said he was looking at old photos of Joe Hernandez, the track announcer who worked at Del Mar for more than 20 years. Peb, who's been commissioned by Del Mar to do a mural that will include dozens of the jockeys, trainers, owners and celebrities who worked and played at the seaside track, hopes to have the work finished in time for opening day in July. Peb reeled off the names of those he's drawing: Bing Crosby, Pat O'Brien, Jimmy Durante, Oliver Hardy, W.C. Fields, Ava Gardner, Betty Grable, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Mickey Rooney and Telly Savalas. He's already captured Durante's schnoz perfectly, in the sports-celebrity mural he drew for Gallagher's, the Manhattan steak house, a few years ago.
"I've already done four or five of them (some of the others can be seen at Churchill Downs, Belmont Park and Aqueduct)," Peb said, "and I hope to do many more. Dinny Phipps (chairman of the Jockey Club) is a good friend, and he's interested in seeing that I get more work. He's like my godfather."
The mural at Churchill, completed in 2005, includes all 96 jockeys who had won the first 130 runnings of the Kentucky Derby. A Peb Foundation is being formed at Keeneland, where many of his sketches will be on display at the track's renowned racing library.
Pierre (no middle initial--he made up the middle letter in "Peb") Bellocq might have lost a gig, but he's not lost a job. His pad and pen will keep him working as long as he likes. As the blogger Dan Kenny quipped, "Peb won't need to stand in any baguette line."