John Henry: Uncommon Hero

John Henry, whose humble beginnings struck a common theme with the everyday racing fan and whose place in history will remain secure by virtue of seven championships and a Hall of Fame plaque, was euthanized Oct. 8 at the Kentucky Horse Park near Lexington. The 32-year-old gelding, a contemporary of fellow Hall of Famers Affirmed and Alydar, had experienced kidney problems and weight loss exacerbated by hot temperatures starting in August.

"After continued successful efforts to maintain the quality of John Henry's life, in the past 48 hours he did not respond to our medical intervention," said the park's equine director, Kathy Hopkins. "Due to the loss of kidney function and muscle mass, his veterinarian, Dr. Mike Beyer, found it impossible to keep him properly hydrated and comfortable.



Watch John Henry in action.
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Scenes from John Henry's walk with handler Barbara Ratterree Aug. 7.

Watch the slide show "John Henry: Honoring the life of a legend."

"Over the years, our goal has always been to maintain the highest quality of care and life for him, and it became evident over the (Oct. 6-7) weekend that this was no longer possible."

John Henry not only had beaten the odds by living to the ripe old age of 32, but had done so numerous times in his racing career. Unlike Affirmed and Alydar, whose racing ability was evident right from the start, John Henry largely went unnoticed before he started winning big for Sam Rubin and his wife, Dorothy, in the name of their Dotsam Stable. Rubin, a bicycle importer who grew up in New York City, had bought John Henry for $25,000 as a 3-year-old in training in the spring of 1978 from Central Kentucky horseman Harold "Bubba" Snowden Jr. It took some time, but under Ron McAnally's training, John Henry reached unimagined heights. Only fellow geldings Forego and Kelso earned more championships.

John Henry became the first horse to earn $3 million, the first to earn $4 million, the first to earn $5 million, the first to earn $6 million, and the first to earn $6.5 million. Along the way he provided the Rubins with coast-to-coast thrills.

For Sam Rubin, who died at 91 in February 2006, John Henry gave the special type of excitement he had craved since his early days as a bettor. Rubin's daughter, Phyllis Leighton, conveyed a sense of grief on behalf of her father and stepmother when notified of John Henry's death.

"It was very sad even though the horse was old and not well," said Leighton. "He gave my father and his wife the adventure of a lifetime. He was a wonderful horse--exciting, competitive, and feisty. It's an end of an era.

"My dad and John Henry were really compatible. He not only liked the races, but also enjoyed being around horses at the barn. But John Henry was feisty. You couldn't get too close to him before the races."

Rubin, who won 36 races with John Henry, shared some of the special moments with family and friends. "He had millions of photos of John Henry's races and gave them to his family and friends," Leighton said.

Prior to John Henry's death, Leighton had learned of the recent death of Dorothy Rubin in Florida.

Drowned Rat

Long before John Henry cemented his fame in such wins as the inaugural Arlington Million Invitational on grass and a zillion other turf stakes, he had been passed along from owner to owner without as much as an afterthought. His journey from dud to superstar proved nearly as interesting.

John Henry was bred in Kentucky by the Lehmann family's Golden Chance Farm, and sired by farm stallion Ole Bob Bowers, whose fee was only $500. Produced from the Double Jay mare Once Double, John Henry also had the odds stacked against him by being small, plain looking, and back at the knee. He also had inherited a bit of a temper from his sire.

"He was an interesting character," Verna Lehmann said from her Central Kentucky home. "When he was just a weanling, he was cantankerous and was not a well-­behaved little horse, but we loved him anyway. I was looking at his registration picture the other day and I thought, 'Well, he stood nicely there for once!' When he was out in the pasture, he liked to run, and we should have known then he would have been a runner and good racer. When he was turned out in a group, the other little ones stayed away. I think they were afraid of him. Once he started racing, going from state to state, I could only keep track of him by news and in the media."

John Henry's taste for trouble was evident at the 1976 Keeneland January horses of all ages sale. John Henry had been hitting his head on the screen of his stall and went into the ring with a bloody head. In spite of that, Kentucky horseman John Callaway took a liking to him and bought him for $1,100 from Golden Chance, even though he later described him as looking like a "drowned rat."

It was during the time when John Henry was owned by Callaway and his wife, Jean, that he received his name. The name, immortalized in a song about a steel-driving man, inadvertently came to signify the equine John Henry's mettle.

After a year with the Callaways, John Henry found a new owner in Snowden, who bought him as a 2-year-old for $2,200 at the 1977 Keeneland January sale. Snowden, who had John Henry gelded, ended up selling him twice at bargain prices, but took him back both times after the owners expressed displeasure.

The second time Snowden sold John Henry, the gelding was bought by Louisiana owners Colleen Madere and Dorthea Lingo and sent to trainer Phil Marino in the Pelican State. As a 2-year-old, John Henry proved good enough to win his first start and then later an allowance race and the Lafayette Futurity. But he flattened out after that, and the two women returned him to Snowden in 1978. After racing once for Snowden at the Keeneland spring meeting, John Henry was off to become a legend for Sam and Dorothy Rubin.

Dirt to Turf

John Henry didn't turn into a legend overnight. But the seeds were planted right after new trainer Bobby Donato noticed how well John Henry worked on turf the spring of '78.

Donato tried John Henry on the grass in a $35,000 claimer at Belmont Park, and the gelding cruised home by 14 lengths. Next came an allowance win on turf, followed by three stakes-­placings on grass, and later a 12-length triumph in the Round Table Handicap (gr. IIIT) at Arlington Park.

John Henry's victory in a division of the 1978 Chocolatetown Handicap on grass at Penn National proved to be one of Sam Rubin's favorites. A chocolate fanatic, Rubin was tongue tied when the chairman of Hershey's presented him with a trophy filled with chocolate kisses and later went into overdrive eating those kisses. When asked after he won the inaugural Arlington Million in 1981 if this were his biggest win, Rubin replied it ranked up there with the Chocolatetown.

Rubin and Donato parted company after a falling out at the end of 1978, and Rubin hired another New York trainer, Victor J. "Lefty" Nickerson. Under Nickerson in 1979, John Henry displayed a solid rather than spectacular year, winning several allowance events and placing in two stakes.

In the fall of that year, Rubin decided to send John Henry to California for the winter so John Henry could concentrate on grass racing. Nickerson, who decided to stay in New York, suggested Ron Mc­Anally after Rubin's attempt to hire California legend Charlie Whittingham failed.

McAnally, who found fault with John Henry's physique upon his initial examination of the gelding, knew he couldn't change that, so he went to work on John Henry's temper. The Blood-Horse's Steve Haskin in John Henry noted McAnally tried to become his good friend.

"I just wanted him to know that we were on his side. I figured if we gave him a lot of tender, loving care, he in turn would convert that nastiness he had when he was young into competitiveness on the racetrack."

Although his nastiness was tempered, John Henry stayed hungry enough to run himself into the Hall of Fame under McAnally's care. Darrel McHargue started as John Henry's California rider. When John Henry ran back east, Nickerson was in charge.

Taking on the best of competition, John Henry won just about every major grass race and some as many as three times. Perhaps none of his 30 career stakes wins was more thrilling than his nose triumph over The Bart in the inaugural Arlington Million. The titanic finish in the world's first million-dollar race is depicted in the sculpture "Against All Odds" near the saddling area at Arlington Park.

The victory went a long way toward John Henry being voted 1981 Horse of the Year, plus champion grass male. John Henry also was voted that year's champion older male after winning the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) and Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I). Bill Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay Jr. shared the riding responsibilities that year.

John Henry's second Horse of the Year season (in 1984) bordered on the spectacular in that the Prince Blessed grandson achieved the distinction as a 9-year-old. Never before had a horse that old been named Horse of the Year. No wonder he is looked upon as the best there ever was at that age.

Contrast that achievement with the fact that Forego was retired by that age, and Kelso had started just once at 9, and it's easy to see why John Henry remained a fan favorite. On The Blood-Horse's Thoroughbred Champions: Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century, John Henry ranks 23rd, right behind the gelded Phar Lap and right ahead of Nashua. Kelso ranks fourth, Forego eighth, and another great gelding, Exterminator, is 29th.

During that 1984 Horse of the Year season, John Henry won six of nine races under jockey Chris McCarron. They included another Arlington Million (gr. IT, sponsored by Budweiser), plus the Turf Classic (gr. IT) and a third Hollywood Invitational Handicap (gr. IT). He also was voted champion grass male for the fourth time. He proved so popular that People magazine named him as one of its top 25 most intriguing "people" of 1984.

"What can I say about the legendary John Henry that has not already been said," McCarron said. "John meant the world to my family and me. Everywhere he raced, his presence doubled the size of a normal race track crowd. He did so much for racing, even after he retired, that he will be impossible to replace."

John Henry's last start in 1984, a triumphant one in the inaugural Ballantine's Scotch Classic Handicap at Meadowlands, turned out to be the final race of the gelding's career. He was scheduled to run in the inaugural Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) that November, but came down with a filling in his left foreleg. He was returned to training the following year, but was retired that summer because of a torn suspensory ligament.

John Henry had won 39 of 83 races and earned $6,591,860, a record sum until Alydar's son, Alysheba, bettered it in 1988. On turf, he won or placed in 45 of 49 races.

Rubin chose the Kentucky Horse Park for John Henry's retirement home because he felt the gelding would be happiest there. Forego was also a resident there. (He died in 1997 and is buried there.) John Henry was welcomed by Gov. Martha Lane Collins, and the Horse Park held a "John Henry Day" several days later.

There was a bit of sadness when it came time for McAnally and groom Jose Mercado to say goodbye. "He let out a cry like you've never heard before," Haskin wrote in John Henry. "It was like he was asking, 'Are you going to leave me her alone?' It was a really sad and trying moment."

John Henry, who proved a big hit at the Horse Park, was buried there near the Hall of Champions.

Snowden, who was contacted by the Horse Park when it came time to euthanatize John Henry, remembered John Henry as a horse unlike any other.

"He became a legend in many ways other than just an equine athlete performer," he said. "He also changed conformation standards. To be so back in his knee and run so many times at the level he did for so many years was really against what the conformation experts and vets expected.

"He was truly a horse that overcame rejection for three years before hard-earned respect came his way. I'm glad I played a small part in his life and hopefully made some small contributions to his success, whether it was castrating him or whatever."

Snowden is definitely one who won't let history repeat itself. "I'm looking for a horse to be destructive again like him because this time I won't sell him," he said.

Claire Novak contributed to this article.


(Originally published in the Oct. 20 edition of The Blood-Horse.)



Ron McAnally: John Henry's trainer

They did a super job at the Horse Park. When I stopped by there in September during the Keeneland sale, it was about 5:30 at night, and there was only one young girl there in the tack room. I went over to his stall. I always bring him some treats. He was standing over in the corner very quiet, and I hollered to him. I said, "John." He let out the loudest yell.

The only other time I've heard him yell that loud, I think, was when we retired him to the Horse Park (in 1985). Jose Mercado, his groom, was there. He slowly took the shank off him. The governor of Kentucky was there, too. And John let out a yell like, "What are you doing leaving me here?"

I saw him at least once every year (usually during the sales). And sometimes if we ran a horse at Keeneland, then I'd drop in. I always would go to see him. He meant so much to our family and a lot of racing fans.

One of the things I remember about John--it's been a few years--was when he was down at the other end of his paddock at the Horse Park. He had his ears glued--you could hear the Clydesdales on the road a little ways off--he was just glued on it. He was wondering what was going on. And I thought to myself, "This will be a good time to test him, to see if he knows me." So I stood down at the other end of his paddock by the fence, and I hollered, "John." He turned around and he looked and he just came running over to me. He just forgot about the horses, and I thought, "Well, that was gratifying."

Lewis Cenicola: John Henry's exercise rider

He was like an icon. He'd bring out at least 20,000 people who would come out to the races just to see him.

He was nice to gallop, and smart. He took care of himself. He was just a smart horse, and that's probably what made him such a great horse. But he still had that toughness about him. I first got on him in 1979. I used to work him all the time. Once in a while on the grass one of the jockeys would come out to work him, but I usually worked the horse. He was easy to work. He'd work fast--all you had to do was just sit on him. You didn't have to do too much with him.

Eduardo Inda: McAnally's assistant at the time

He was a real champion. No medication--nothing. Super horse. Not too many horses you can say that about.

Jack Robbins: veterinarian

He had a beautiful cadence in his gallops, a synchronous cadence. He had a really long reach for a not very big horse. He was a beautiful mover.

We nicknamed him John-John right away when he got to California. He was a fairly mean gelding in his stall--you knew why he was a gelding.

He was a horse that had very few problems. If you'd had a barn full of horses like him, a veterinarian would have starved to death.

Dr. Rick Arthur: veterinarian

I'm not sure the horse had $1,000 in vet bills during the four or five years we took care of him.

He was always a tough horse, and he never liked me. Down at Del Mar just before he retired, I wanted to get a photo of me holding the horse. So I was holding the shank and right after they took the photo he swallowed my arm right up to the elbow.

Jose Mercado: John Henry's groom who now works for Craig Lewis


He was a legend. He had a high temper. He was always trying to do more than he was supposed to--he was too good.

Eddie Delahoussaye: retired Hall of Fame jockey

The first time I saw John Henry was in Louisiana and I rode against him at Evangeline Downs. He was a tough old horse; I can tell you that. I rode against him in the first Arlington Million on The Bart. I thought I had him at the eighth pole, and he came back on. It was so close at the wire, nobody knew who won. I think the TV guy said I had won, and then had to come back and say John Henry had won. I wasn't sure either. I galloped out in front of Shoe, and he said, "What did you think?" I said, "I don't know, Shoe. It was too close."

All those guys who rode him--Laffit, Shoemaker, McCarron--they were just passengers. And that's the kind you want to ride.

Hal Snowden: who owned John Henry three different occasions

When they called me and asked me if I wanted to see him again, I had 30-40 minutes before they were going to put him down. I told them I'd like to remember the horse as I have him in my heart rather than seeing him on his last legs.

When John Calloway bought him, every vet asked him, "Were you drinking? He's not going to stand training; you might as well get rid of him." I bought him, and the same question was asked many, many times of me. Regardless, the horse was able to overcome all professional opinions, and he climbed Mount Everest on his own.

It makes me feel good to just be able to say I was a small part of his life. I can remember the days with the horse quite vividly from the time I started to work with him. He was tearing up feed tubs and webbings at Keeneland, and he always had his own way of getting attention.

Verna Lehmann: John Henry's breeder

I was there most of the afternoon until they put him down. I said, "I brought him into this world; I'll stay and see him leave."

He was an interesting character. When he was just a weanling, he was cantankerous. He was not a well-behaved little horse, but we loved him anyway. When he was turned out in a group, the other little ones stayed away. I think they were afraid of him.

We made so many friends just by his reputation, and all the good racing he did. At the Horse Park so many people told me: "If it weren't for John Henry, we wouldn't have known and met so many friends." He really brought people together.


Equine Center

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Only by dint of their determination and will does the story of John Henry, the horse, compare with that of the legendary "steel-drivin man" because stature-wise, there was no comparison.
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About the Author

David Schmitz

David Schmitz is a Senior Staff Writer for The Blood Horse.

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