Note: This article appeared originally in the March, 2011 issue of “Galopp Magasinet,” a Swedish horse racing magazine that I just adore. They cover flat racing of all ilks: Arabian, Thoroughbred, Mongolian–you name it. Their photojournalism is second-to-none–and,occasionally, they hire humble writers such as my self, to tell a story or two.
I love John Henry. Our birthdays were a week away: he, born on March 9th, me, on the second. I was going to wait and post this article for his birthday week, but, nah. I decided to put it up now. It’s a quiet day, and I hope that some of you will read this and come away with a different understanding of the irascible old Champion. Sometimes, seeing a horse, person or issue from another side can help us gain new perspective…
Many contemporary equine heroes are the inspiration for sentimental movies and posters on little girls’ boudoir walls. John Henry, on the other hand, was the archetype, the encouragement, for Everyman.
The story of American Thoroughbred racing legend John Henry is a metaphor for America, itself: brash. Bold. Confident to the point of being arrogant. Charging in. Greatness grown from humble beginnings. Youthful exuberance. Of all the horses who’ve passed through the American equine pantheon, John Henry is the one who most symbolized the virtue of being blue-collar in a gold-collar world–the rough-and-tumble, poorly-pedigreed horse came from obscurity to become the highest-earning Thoroughbred, with more accolades and awards than his owner’s mantle could hold…
John Henry was a man’s man. He was a woman’s man. He did life on his own terms, and apologized for nothing. He was irascible, nasty and opinionated. He exemplified the term, “grit”: an aggressive child, he become tougher as he grew into an awkward, smallish donkey of a horse.
If this is your first encounter with the legendary horse, this description may seem harsh–but it’s an honest assessment. And John Henry, who died at age 32 in 2007 at the Kentucky Horse Park, was nothing if not honest. He raced 83 times and came in the money 63 of those races: he graced winner’s circles 39 times in all. He ran hard and hated to lose.
Truly, he exemplified the notion that anyone, regardless of breeding or advantages, could make it.
From Humble Beginnings
He came into the world in 1975, sans fanfare or great expectations: his parentage was nothing special. In a sport that’s pedigree-crazy–millions paid for an untested yearling who happens to be the product of an accomplished sire or dam–John Henry was a disappointment from his inception. His sire, Ole Bob Bowers, didn’t do anything of note on the track. (Although, to be fair, it should be noted here that both Princequillo and Bull Lea were Ole Bob Bowers’ grandsires.) Once Double, John Henry’s dam, wasn’t noteworthy either as a runner or as a producer (although her sire, Double Jay, was a fabulously fast graded stakes winner).
But all-in-all, the little foal who dropped onto the ground at Golden Chance Farm that cold March day had no reason to raise hopes for his breeder or owner: at the January 1976 Keeneland Mixed Sale, he sold for $1,000–a pittance. And the little horse with no name was nothing to look at that day: small and plainly-bred, he was a mess when he stepped into the sales’ ring. He had long hair and a weak chest. Was back at the knee and had blood all over his face from hitting his head in his stall just before he was brought out. It’s a wonder that even $1,000 was paid for the undersized yearling.
But John Calloway saw at least something in him, so $1,000 changed hands and the nameless horse was on the first leg of the journey that would take him to racing stardom.
What’s in a Name? Destiny.
Calloway is credited with naming the horse after an American folk legend, John Henry, a “steel-driving man.” The horse, even as a youngster, had a habit of grabbing the steel water buckets off the wall of his stalls and stomping them flat. He was gelded both or his poor breeding and for his temperament. (Obviously the gelding did nothing to affect his attitude.)
Did this horse have anger issues? No doubt. Could he be trained to channel that rage into something positive, and breathtakingly beautiful? Absolutely.
(Note here that the human John Henry was Black, probably a slave or prisoner. The very fact that a Black American hero grew out of 19th Century American mythology at a time when civil rights wasn’t even a glimmer of a thought–is an indication of the power of the archetype. The power of such an archetype is the defining Truth of these two beings who shared a name: that, being of disadvantaged birth, one could become a legend, a folk song, an American Hero. And the other, a racing Champion of monstrous proportion, the yardstick by which other horses are measured.)
Conformation of the Soul
His physical conformation never changed, of course: it was his attitude, his heart–those untouchable attributes that define the difference between a horse who ends up pulling an Amish buggy and one of the greatest Thoroughbred Champions of all time. Lovers of all horse breeds know about heart: it can’t be touched with the hands, but we know it when we see it.
John Henry came into this world doomed. He left it with millions of fans for whom his awkward head had become the embodiment of beauty, itself.
It was that heart that gave him the drive to run faster, farther than hundreds of competitors. It was something from so far down in the horse’s self that probably even he didn’t understand it, he just went with it.
Eighty-three times John Henry entered a race, and 39 of those times, he chewed up his opponents and spit them out. Eighty-three entries is remarkable, by today’s American racing standards: many American horses who’ve received Eclipse Awards raced no more than five times in a year. Most three-year-olds who did reasonably well in 2010 are now retired to stud or broodmare duty.
John Henry, being a gelding, had no such lush retirement on the horizon: he raced through his ninth year, and resoundingly won six of his nine entries that year. Proving that Thoroughbreds really do get better with age–at least, that Thoroughbred–he would not be the poster boy for early retirement of a horse.
A Racing Record Par Excellence
From that first sale at Keeneland until Sam Rubin found him, John Henry bounced around from owner to owner until he was three. But then Sam Rubin bought him for $25,000, sight-unseen, in 1978, and the tide began to turn. The three-year-old had achieved a bit on the track at that point, but no records had been broken, no predictions of greatness made. His so-so race record was no doubt attributable to his unstable lifestyle.
Sam Rubin knew nothing about horses–he thought that “gelding” was a color. Rubin needed guidance and insight from someone who knew horses, including colors. At first the horse was under the tutelage of trainer Robert Donato, who saw the horse’s grass potential. (He was small, but he had big feet.) Donato took the horse successfully to six straight victories that year, for a total of $120,000–and from cheap claimer to stakes winner. This was a tremendous leap for the awkward little horse who had been dismissed at birth.
The next year the owner and trainer had a disagreement on policy and parted company, and John Henry was given to a new trainer, Lefty Nickerson. With Nickerson, he won four of 11 races in 1979, but when the grass season in New York was over, Rubin suggested sending his horse to California. Nickerson believed that his friend, Ron McAnally, should be entrusted with the horse with rising potential. By now John Henry was four, and had earned $239,613.
This new arrangement was a match made in Heaven–or at least in the Racing Hall of Fame. The team of McAnally and John Henry won 27 of 45 races, and earned $6,358,334 by the time the 83rd race was run and won.
Apparently John Henry trusted McAnally as much as he could trust a human. And the trainer knew how to work with such a horse, to take that powerful rage and properly shapeshift it into the relief of running fast, far and leaving the competition in the dust.
What did John Henry accomplish?
At the age of five–five is the age at which Thoroughbreds are fully grown–John Henry discovered himself. It was as if he’d found his footing, and his role in Life. The lightbulb went off, and he Got It. That year his star shot up into the sky, as he won the Hialeah Turf Cup; San Juan Capistrano; San Luis Rey and the Oak Tree Invitational. In 1980, John Henry won $925,217 in purse money, and was named Champion Male Turf Horse of 1980. (Eclipse Awards)
The horse was on a roll: at age six, John Henry won the first of his two consecutive Santa Anita Handicaps; the San Luis Rey; the inaugural Arlington Million and the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. He racked up many honors, including Eclipse Awards for Champion Male Turf Horse, Champion Older Horse, and Horse of the Year. His earnings for 1981 totaled $1,798,030.
But at age six, John Henry was far from done–he had races to win, and money to take from his rivals. His eighth and ninth years did not see him slowing down–if anything, he got better with age. This flies in the face, completely, of the American “wisdom” that dictates that a good horse’s best days are during that third year. As an eight-year-old, he won the American Handicap and the Hollywood Turf Cup. He was also named Champion Male Turf Horse.
As if to put an exclamation point on his bold statement of superiority, John Henry won–earned–$2,336,650 when he was nine years old. That is absolutely unheard-of in American Thoroughbred racing. In fact, many three-year-olds retire with a bankroll that size after two successful years–and use the figure as bragging rights in the stallion advertising pages.
But in that ninth, final season of racing, John Henry won the Golden Gate Handicap; Hollywood Invitational; Sunset Handicap; Budweiser Arlington Million; Turf Classic and Ballantine’s Scotch Classic. That year he trounced the competition in these six extraordinary races, and was once again named Eclipse Champion Male Turf Horse and Horse of the Year.
Major Victories and Accolades, a Summary
Hialeah Turf Cup Handicap (1980)
San Gabriel Handicap (1980)
Oak Tree Turf Championship (1980, 1981, 1982)
Hollywood Invitational Handicap (1980, 1981, 1984)
San Luis Rey Hanicap (1980, 1981)
Santa Anita Handicap (1981, 1982)
Arlington Million (1981, 1984)
Jockey Club Gold Cup (1981)
Turf Classic Invitational (1984)
Sunset Handicap (1984)
(Note the two Arlington Millions and two Santa Anita Handicaps–and the prestigious Jockey Club Gold Cup.)
All-in-all, the great, the mighty, the irreverent John Henry won seven Eclipse Awards:
* two as Horse of the Year (1981 and 1984)
* four as Champion Turf Horse (1980, 1981, 1983, 1984) and
* one as Champion Older Male. (1981)
In more recent years, other horses have surpassed his earnings–but he still holds the records for turf horses or for geldings.
John Henry and Ron McAnally were inducted into the (American) Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York together, in August, 1990.
Retirement, and the Final Race: Elysian Fields
So how did retirement set with John Henry, whose only documentable moments of joy were known running with the wind in his mane and his back-end facing his opponents?
Rather well, as it turns out. The great hero spent the last 22 years of his life being adored by legions of fans at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. From his stall on the end of the Hall of Champions, John could reach out to nip an unsuspecting passer-by, to neigh jealously when Cigar or another warrior was being admired. He was as close to his public as he’d ever been–at last, the throngs who’d worshipped him at the track could get (almost) up-close and personal with the one horse in racing who genuinely represented The Average Guy.
With his own (large) paddock outside his backdoor, John Henry could run around, enjoying the luscious Kentucky sunshine, tearing the famous Blue Grass out of the ground and impressing visitors with his prowess. His ability to show off the moves that brought him fame and fortune diminished nary a bit through the years, until the summer of 2007, when kidney problems set in following a vicious heat wave that sapped him of his energy and ability to process fluids correctly.
This writer met him in person just four days before he was euthanized in early October that year–and even four days before his end, he was standing; interacting intelligently and genuinely; and eating and drinking with the voracity of a pirate on shore leave. If he was in pain, he didn’t let on–he was true-to-form right to the end.
John Henry was euthanized at 7:05PM on October 8th, 2007, surrounded by many who loved him. Jockey Chris McCarron, who’d ridden the warrior horse in many remarkable stakes races, had the opportunity to spend several hours with him before the veterinarian arrived. He was buried on the night of his death, in front of the Hall of Champions and right in front of his paddock. Above him there is a stone inscribed with these words,
“If tears could build a stairway, and memories a lane, I’d walk right up to Heaven, and bring you home again.”
(John Henry may have thought that tribute to be a bit too sentimental for his cavalier taste, but it befits the ache in the hearts of those humans who knew and love him. We fans of John Henry love him because-of and in-spite-of his infamously incorrigible personality.)
There is also a statue of him standing proudly–how else could he be depicted?–holding court, staring at the throngs that flocked to see him wherever he appeared. Engraved under the bronze are the words used to describe his classic brilliance in his 1984 Arlington Million win:
“John Henry, A Living Legend.”
John Henry was living, breathing, kicking proof that pedigree doesn’t tell the whole story.
Contemporary horse purveyors and buyers would do well to look only as far back as 1975 – 1984 to realize that a horse is as good as he thinks he is. No amount of math, science, ritual or genetic calculations can accurately predict if the mating of This Mare with This Sire will produce That Champion. We have ample examples of horses who brought millions of dollars, only to trip over their own feet the first time they walk out of the stall, and languish with a lifetime of bucked shins.
No, a Champion, as John Henry proved time and again, is born–not of great parentage, but of spark, guts, spirit and sheer will. There was no reason, by conventional breeding “wisdom,” why John Henry should have done anything other than cross the road with some level of intelligence. Truly he represents America more than perhaps many Americans would wish to admit. Many in the US have risen from a birth of ashes to prominence and uncountable wealth–but they work hard to hide the story of their humble start. If anything, John Henry would have them proudly display their blue-collar heritage, because it is that gritty beginning, that hard-knocking, ugly-duckling determination–that is the stuff of a true Champion.
Anyone can buy pedigree, but no one can buy (with any degree of accuracy) a Champion if the horse doesn’t have the soul of a predator. Indeed John Henry was a predator, a hero, an example for Everyman. He was born a serf, and died the Emperor in the Sport of Kings.