With this month being the 40th anniversary of John Henry’s legendary triumph in the inaugural Arlington Million, it seemed like a good time to show the all-time great from another perspective – as a retiree at Kentucky Horse Park. This column, in a slightly different form, originally appeared in The Saratogian on March 22, 2005.
John Henry died on October 8, 2007 and is buried at Horse Park with, among others, Man o ‘War, War Admiral, Forego, Cigar and Alysheba.
They had a party in Kentucky the other day. Between 150 and 200 people showed up at Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington to help John Henry celebrate his 30th birthday. Hall of Fame gelding breeder, at least one former owner, and jockey Chris McCarron were among those in attendance. Longtime coach Ron McInally called to congratulate them from California.
Much to everyone’s relief, the seven-time Eclipse Award winner was on his best behavior. He endured all the attention without losing his legendary cool, even consenting to be led – past baskets of carrots and apples, bouquets of flowers and other edible gifts – to pose for photos while his admirers sang ” Happy Birthday “.
“He was very tired this morning,” Cathy Roby of Horse Park told Daily Racing Form ahead of the ceremony. “He knows something’s going on.
Roby manages the Hall of Champions where John Henry has lived since 1985. Other current residents of the Hall include Cigar and Breeders’ Cup Mile hero Da Hoss.
John Henry makes his living being presented to the public three times a day from mid-March to October. His appearance in the small covered pavilion follows video highlights from some of his biggest wins. As he is led into the pavilion, the announcer introduces the elderly champion by intoning, slowly and with a dramatic pause halfway through, “Ladies and gentlemen – the great John Henry. On paper, it might not look like a show, but take my word for it: it will make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end.
John Henry remains popular for a number of reasons. First of all, of course, is his age and the fact that he’s one of the last links to a time when running was closer to being a mainstream sport. People also admire him because he was successful despite being born on the wrong side of the slopes in terms of pedigree – his father was Ole Bob Bowers! – and be without apparent physical gifts. Others are drawn to John Henry because whether man or beast, on or off the trail, he’s never taken shit from anyone.
Some stories are well known. There was the one time he chased McCarron over his paddock fence when the Hall of Fame runner showed up without an appointment. On another occasion, he held a Horse Park employee hostage in his stall for an hour. Three years ago, just before his life-saving colic surgery, John lay down on the clinic floor and refused to get up. After a quick-thinking vet tech punched him hard on the nose, John Henry stood up, ready to face his attacker. Instead, he was taken to surgery where he had seven feet of intestine removed.
Roby warned the technician that “it could take a week or a month, but John will get you back.” A week later, as the technician bent down to check her bandage, John Henry turned his head and bit her – on her nose.
Over time, John Henry’s race record seemed increasingly unattainable – 39 wins and 24 places out of 83 starts; 25 Ranked wins, including 16 Grade 1; horse of the year titles at six and nine. There may be other horses as fiery, intelligent or
competitive. There may even be a few that combine these qualities in roughly the same proportions. But no horse will ever do what John Henry did on the racetrack again. None will even come close.