As an art student in the 1950s, Jim Reno, who later created a larger than life-size statue of Secretariat for the great stallion’s owner, Penny Tweedy, looked to Herbert Haseltine as an inspiration.

“He was my hero,” said Reno, who has himself been an inspiration to other equine artists. “He did the sculpture of Man O’War at Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. I never dreamed when I was in art school that I’d have a life-size bronze sitting next to Haseltine’s.”

Reno and Haseltine came from vastly different backgrounds, but they shared a passion for horses and art.

Born in 1929, Reno, the son of a hard-working single mother, cleaned stalls as a boy at the county fairgrounds in New Castle, Indiana and earned a five-year scholarship to John Herron School of Art in Indianapolis. Haseltine (1877-1962) was born into a wealthy East Coast family, graduated from Harvard and studied art in Munich and Paris.

Upon graduation, Reno moved to Houston and supported himself by training horses, while waiting to sell some art. His first commission came from wealthy Houstonian Douglas Marshall, who wanted Reno to sculpt his champion Arabian stallion Surf.

At the start of his career, Haseltine’s social connections helped land him commissions from clients like King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. In 1925, as he was developing a style forged from both the realistic and ideal, he was commissioned by Marshall Field to sculpt 19 champion animals for the famous Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. In 1986, the Field Museum sold the “Champion Animals” to Paul Mellon, who donated them to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

These magnificent sculptures are the subject of Champion Animals, Sculptures by Herbert Haseltine, published by and available through the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Each chapter features exquisite color photographs of the works, along with photographs of the subjects, and Haseltine’s notes about the creation of each piece, including comments on the personalities and dispositions of the animals. The majority of the sculptures are of horses – steeplechase, race and polo champions, as well as champion Percherons, Shires and a Suffolk Punch stallion. But there are also Aberdeen Angus, Hereford, and Shorthorn bulls; Lincoln rams and a Southdown ewe; Berkshire and Middle White boars and a sow; and a “composite” Thoroughbred horse.

The Champion Animals collection is marked by a smooth elegance and economy of form that renders pure essence of subject. The pieces are further enhanced by the stunning use of bronze, marble, limestone and gold plate. The Percheron mare Messaline and her foal, for instance, are carved in streaky, grey Bardiglio marble that suggests the grey of their coats. Black Knight of Auchterarder, the Angus bull, is carved from black Belgian marble; Field Marshall V, the Shire stallion, is chiseled bronze plated with gold.

Even without the gorgeous photographs this book would be a treasure because of Haseltine’s commentary. In the chapter on the Lincoln rams, he noted that he always liked to talk with the shepherds, as well as the caretakers of the other animals that he sculpted.

“These men always enjoyed talking about their animals, and they gave me frank, unbiased criticisms, which I felt were absolutely sincere, and to the point; this was in contrast to some of the far-fetched criticisms by the high-brow professional critics.”Champion Animals is a book for lovers of livestock and horses, as well as lovers of art, and it’s one to dip into again and again.