ROCKY RIDGE — — Metro Meteor, whose abstract paintings rapidly are becoming an art world sensation, might be just a horse. And the 11-year-old bay, like all equines, has a hard time distinguishing reds from greens or browns.
Yet Metro's original watercolors have become the runaway favorite at a regional art gallery. He has racked up a combined $130,000 in sales for his paintings and, through a separate licensing agreement, a line of home-decorating products.
"Metro is by far our best-selling artist," said Peggy Rock, the director of Gallery 30 in Gettysburg, Pa. There, the horse, who is stabled here in Frederick County, has sold 80 large paintings and 300 miniature works at prices ranging from $80 to $850. "He probably has double the sales of our second-best-selling artist."
As the attention of the horse-loving world turns Saturday to California Chrome's attempt to win the Triple Crown, Metro is proof that racehorses past their prime might not all need to be put out to pasture.
In his heyday, Metro earned $300,000 in purses during a racing career that stretched from 2005 through 2009, owner Ron Krajewski said. He was trained by Linda Rice, who recently prepared Kid Cruz for the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Metro even ran on grass at Belmont Park, where he excelled in races of six furlongs.
His advice for Chrome?
"Metro thinks that California Chrome should save some for the end," said Krajewski, tongue firmly in cheek. "He shouldn't use it all up too early. It's a long race."
Metro isn't the first animal ever to apply paint to paper and call it art. There have been art-making elephants and frogs. Cows have made salt lick sculptures. Many of the animals' creations have been auctioned off to raise money for zoos or other charities.
But few if any of these creative quadrupeds have been represented by an art gallery alongside their human counterparts.
Rock said she never hesitated about displaying and selling Metro's artworks, even though she was aware that she might get resistance from customers or artists.
"There have been a few laughs, but that's never been a concern for us," Rock said. "We also lost one of our long-standing artists. She was probably our next best-selling artist after Metro, and she didn't think that his art should be on our wall. But every other one of our artists has been very supportive."
Doubtless, part of the appeal is Metro's back story. Krajewski uses about half of the proceeds from his sales to pay for an experimental treatment for a knee ailment that once threatened the horse's survival.
"Metro's paintings saved his life," Krajewski said.
The remaining funds are donated to a charity for retired racehorses
"Ron's generosity has been absolutely extraordinary," said Dot Morgan, founder of the Ohio-based New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Programs, who said that Krajewski has contributed more than $60,000 to the organization in the past 18 months.
"What he has allowed us to do is to take injured horses that previously we might have had to turn down because it would take too long to rehabilitate them. Now, with this funding, we can take six months to treat them even before we start retraining."
Here's a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged horse:
Four days a week, Krajewski leads Metro to the stall devoted to his artwork, which he and the owners of Motters Station Stables in Rocky Ridge have dubbed "Studio Six."
There's a table that contains watercolors in a vast array of hues: emerald greens, rich reds and stark whites. There's a paint-splattered easel, and a pallet of the 300-pound paper ideal for watercolors. Most important, there's a big blue treat bucket.
Krajewski, who is also an artist (he specializes in pet portraits), drops a treat into the bucket. After Metro scarfs it up, Krajewski dips the brush in a color that he has selected and places the handle in the horse's mouth. Bobbing his head up and down and side to side, Metro swipes the brush over the canvas.
Krajewski rotates the canvas, offers another treat, and then the brush. He's learned that he can direct where the horse paints by altering the spot at which he hands him the brush.
Not bad for an animal with dichromatic vision — the rough equivalent in humans of being color-blind.
Earlier this week, Metro even collaborated on four paintings with equine artist Donna Bernstein. After Metro had finished, Bernstein connected his colorful slashes and swirls with her own lines until they formed images of horses.
"When Metro finished his first painting 18 months ago, it looked like it was done by a horse," Krajewski said. "The second painting was something I'd be proud to hang on the wall. Now I'm trying to teach him how to paint flowers."
Because Krajewski wanted to raise even more money for charity, last year he signed a licensing agreement with Dream Green USA, an eco-friendly company that transforms Metro's paintings into totes, wall hangings and throw pillows.
Metro is a character, and so is his owner. The 54-year-old Krajewski, a retired Air Force avionics technician, relocated to the East Coast from Arizona with his wife, Wendy, in 2007.
The couple are longtime animal lovers and started going to races once they found themselves living in horse country. One thing led to another, and the Krajewskis soon became the owners of a former racehorse with bad knees who rapidly was becoming too frail to be ridden even at a walk.
"I fell in love with him from Day One," Krajewski said. "He has an attitude as big as Mount Rushmore, and that was a challenge for me. If he doesn't like something you're doing, he'll let you know in a hurry."
It cracks Krajewski up to watch his aging horse — now a gelding — forget his sore knees and put on his racehorse strut when he's led past a stall occupied by a new mare — not unlike an elderly man who sucks in his gut in the presence of a bikini-clad beauty.
"He'll be all prancey and light on his feet when we get near the mare," Krajewski said. "As soon as we're out of her sight, he'll walk real slow again. Metro still likes the ladies."
Once Metro could no longer be ridden, Krajewski began looking for other ways to spend time with the horse. That became even more imperative when the horse's vet, Kim Brokaw, warned him that Metro's future might be limited.
The steroid treatments used to treat Metro's problem knees weren't working, Brokaw said. Within two years, his knees were likely to lock up. At that point, euthanasia would be the only humane option.
"Metro's head was always hanging out of his stall, bobbing up and down, trying to get my attention or protesting about something," Krajewski said. "The artist in me said that if could put a brush in his mouth, we could make money painting houses."
It began as a joke, but Krajewski is a self-taught artist and one day, he thought, "Why not?"
Metro caught on to painting right away, he said. From a financial standpoint, Metro's second career couldn't have been better timed. There was a drug called Tildren that Brokaw thought might help Metro, though it had never been used on a horse with sore knees before. She thought she could get permission from the Food and Drug Administration for experimental treatment.
But a six-month supply cost thousands of dollars — money the Krajewskis would have been hard-pressed to afford without Metro's help.
"The treatment that Kim devised began to reverse his bone disease," Krajewski said. "We're getting to the point where we'll be able to ride him again."
In February, the FDA approved Tildren for use on horses, according to the agency's website.
Krajewski thinks Metro has begun to enjoy painting for its own sake. Sometimes, he says, the horse steps back and eyes a painting in progress as if considering where to apply a stroke. He said that just because Metro has four hooves and a tail doesn't mean he doesn't hold himself to rigorous aesthetic standards.
Unlike a certain former U.S. president who also turned to art after retiring, "Metro hasn't painted himself in the shower yet," Krajewski said.