‘I Am The Last One They See’: The Artist Behind Racing’s Quickest Masterpiece

by | 05.21.2019 | 11:44am
Jones flips through the program before heading up in the cherry picker. Joe Nevills Photo

When Lawrence Jones arrived in the Preakness infield with a little red wagon full of painting supplies at 5:18 p.m., he was behind the schedule he sets for himself. It seems inconceivable that he, of all the people in the winner's circle that day, should have encountered resistance navigating the labyrinth of security checkpoints with his wagon, given that he's been there for every one of the last 33 Preaknesses. But then again, most people on the property are used to seeing the backs of his legs – if they notice him at all.

Jones, 77, has been responsible for painting the jockey silks on the iconic weathervane on top of the cupola in the Pimlico winner's circle each year, minutes after the race goes official. And now, he may have painted his last.

“They were supposed to close down but they may be here next year. If they're here next year, I might come next year and make it be the last year with them,” he said.

While the crowd throbs to the last few bass beats of the centerpiece artist at Infield Fest, Jones is organizing his yellow box of painting supplies. He has a dozen little pots of enamel paints and loads of different brushes at his disposal. Jones says he doesn't do too much research into the field's colors beforehand but has a collection of go-to colors and hopes the shades will be just right. Standing under the cupola, he flips through the Preakness program, studying the possible designs he may have to recreate.

“I have most colors. It's hard to mix some of these colors nowadays, these bright ones. Certain blues, certain purples, certain yellows. In the old days you might mix something to get near the right color, but not now. The colors are different now. We're not going to mix that color. Or that one,” he said, flipping through the glossy pages and pointing at War of Will's bright pink.

Jones' supplies have been carefully selected for portability and versatility. Joe Nevills Photo

The weathervane painting has been a Preakness tradition since 1909, when the race was renewed after several years off. The original weathervane was battered in the 1966 fire and now lives in the track's museum. Jones got the Preakness painting job when the previous artist, a sign painter from West Virginia, retired. He was working for the city of Baltimore at the time painting signs and the requirements for the Pimlico job were two-fold: the ability to paint quickly and well, and no penchant for drinking. Until more recent years, the task required the painter to climb a harrowing ladder high above the group of jubilant race winners and one very excitable Thoroughbred, so it required someone very steady.

This, Jones told the Wall Street Journal this year, is part of why he's considering retirement. He now goes up in a hydraulic lift commonly known as a “cherry picker,” but arthritis has begun to make the task more challenging than it was once.

Jones watches the infield screens, waiting for the race to go official before he begins. Joe Nevills Photo

Jones doesn't confine his painting to the third Saturday in May. He retired from his job with the city some 15 years ago, but he paints recreationally. He told America's Best Racing in 2015 that he enjoys painting portraits and animals.

After the U.S. Naval Academy's Glee Club sings 'Maryland, My Maryland' the eyes of the Preakness crowd are focused on the horses in the post parade. Like a magician on the stage, Jones takes advantage of the moment when everyone is looking elsewhere to pull on a harness and climb into the bucket of the cherry picker, which an operator raises high into the air. Jones watches the race with a bird's eye view that no one else can get, facing the crowd as the event unfolds.

“I have feelings about certain horses, the personalities of certain horses,” he said. “Big Brown  seemed to always win and he was looking around at the audience before his jockey pulled him straight and he won. Certain personalities win, it seems like. People like Bob Baffert, every other year or so, you can bet they'll have a winner because they're just good at what they do.”

As soon as the race result is marked 'official,' Jones picks up his program and begins painting. He says he does not sketch out patterns on the weathervane ahead of time, and instead paints freehand. It takes about 15 minutes to do each side of the weathervane, and he works quickly, turning it around so the connections in the winner's circle can see their colors before the trophy presentation is over. In the days before the cherry picker, Jones's legs could often be seen at the top of a ladder in official photos as he worked away.

Jones told the Wall Street Journal he has managed not to splatter any owners with paint in three decades. He does not change the jockey or the horse's colors each year, though he does change the number on the saddle towel. (Apparently requests have been made for other changes — after his win in the 1984 Preakness, Angel Cordero allegedly shouted up to Jones's predecessor, suggesting the jockey needed to be a shade or two darker to be accurate.) Jones says he appreciates the raucous applause he gets after the big reveal but he doesn't pay it too much attention. He has a job to do.

The weathervane will spin around if the wind kicks up, so the cherry picker operator helps hold it steady for Jones. Joe Nevills Photo.

When he's done with the weathervane, Jones comes down from the cherry picker and takes his case across the track, through the grandstand, past the NBC trucks and over to the three-foot jockey statue that stands in the walking ring outside the stakes barn. This too is changed each year to match the most recent Preakness winner. By then, the crowds have thinned and the music has gone quiet. The grandstand empties out, revealing discarded programs and beer cans. But for the millions of viewers on NBC's broadcast, the parting shot they see from Pimlico year after year is Jones, brow furrowed in concentration, high above the happiest people at the track.

“I am the last one they see. They want to see the number go up,” he said. “I'm all over the world. It took me so long to realize it, but it is all over the world. It's universal.”

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