There is a very simple reason Tony Cristello focused his artwork on horses.
"I wanted one and I never was going to get one, so I was just drawing them all the time," he said.
Cristello has been creating images of famous racehorses since he was a child growing up in Schenectady in the 1940s. At 74, he's still at it and so busy that he has no time to think about retiring.
A collection of Cristello's more recent work is on permanent display at Jacob & Anthony's American Grille, which opened on High Rock Avenue in Saratoga Springs in 2010. Cristello created pastel portraits of the 12 horses who belong in the Triple Crown Room, the restaurant's private dining area. Hanging prominently behind a nearby bar is his rendering of Funny Cide, the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner. Funny Cide was born at McMahon Thoroughbreds in Saratoga Springs and is owned by Sackatoga Stable.
Cristello, a Schenectady resident, is a longtime friend of the owners of Jacob & Anthony's, and the three Bellini's restaurants in the Capital Region. When he heard about the plans for the Saratoga restaurant, he pitched the idea for an ambitious project.
"I told them, 'if you're going to do a Triple Crown Room, I have folders of every one of the winners and I'll do a portrait of each one,' he said. "That's what I did. They were framed in Albany and came out pretty good."
To prepare for his portraits, Cristello researches photographs of the subject horse. That approach has worked well, but he could only find four images of Sir Barton, who in 1919 was the first horse to win the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
Cristello became interested in horses while watching westerns at a theater near his Mont Pleasant neighborhood home. "If it was a Roy Rogers movie, I'd be looking at Trigger," he said. "I knew the names of all of the horses of the stars."
In 1950, his father took him to Saratoga Raceway, the Standardbred track, where he had his first encounter with racehorses. He has vivid memories of trips with his father to Saratoga Race Course to watch the Thoroughbreds do their early morning training. The Cristellos would leave for Saratoga after closing their family restaurant in Schenectady for the night around 2 a.m., grab something to eat and head over to the track to sit with a handful of onlookers.
Cristello laughed as he described the scene. "That was before they invented the breakfast at Saratoga," he said.
Early in his career, Cristello was a graphic artist at General Electric in Schenectady. He left GE, became a barber and developed his art studio next door. Cristello has done a great deal of work for Saratoga Casino and Raceway though the years, and his paintings hang in the track's hall of fame. His vast collection of Ruffian memorabilia and a painting of the brilliant, ill-fated filly were displayed at the National Museum of Racing.
Two years ago, when American Pharoah ended the 37-year Triple Crown drought and became the 12th winner, Cristello was ready to create another portrait for Jacob & Anthony's.
"As soon as he won it, I knew I had to do another," Cristello said, chuckling. "One of the owners called me up and says, 'I have a job for you.' I said, 'I've already started it.'" S
Mike Kane is contributing editor and writer.