Yes­ter­day’s hero

Gra­ham Bud­dry re­mem­bers the ca­reer of John Henry

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Gra­ham Bud­dry re­calls the ca­reer of John Henry

If you go back not very far our world of rac­ing was very in­su­lar.The Breed­ers Cup se­ries didn’t ex­ist, the Sheikh’s were barely in­volved, horses sel­dom trav­elled fur­ther than France, cer­tainly not trans-At­lantic, news of Amer­i­can horses rarely touched our hori­zon and even when it did it was only those of mas­sive stal­lion po­ten­tial. It was a very dif­fer­ent world.

Tak­ing all this into ac­count makes it even more amaz­ing that an Amer­i­can geld­ing was nearly as widely known here as he was in his own coun­try, but then again he was no or­di­nary horse, for this is the tale of John Henry.

Foaled on 9 March 1975,John Henry was from an undis­tin­guished line.His sire won a soli­tary stakes race and was once sold for just $900 and his dam was never even placed in a race.To com­pound this he was bad na­tured, small in stature and back­ward at the knee, a con­di­tion that usu­ally short­ens a rac­ing ca­reer con­sid­er­ably. At the Keen­land sales he bumped his head just be­fore be­ing led in and ap­peared with blood on his face. Not sur­pris­ingly he fetched only $1,100.

A year later he was back at the auc­tions and fetched $2,200 and was im­me­di­ately gelded due to his un­ruly tem­per­a­ment, which in­cluded rip­ping feed buck­ets from the wall and stamp­ing them flat.

He soon changed hands again and be­fore long he had his first race, although it would be fair to say he wasn’t ready for the ex­pe­ri­ence.As the stalls opened for a maiden race at Jef­fer­son Downs, John Henry lit­er­ally walked out of the gate! De­spite this he chased af­ter the field, caught the lead­ers in the home straight and won by a nose.

Af­ter some good re­sults in mod­est com­pany John Henry then lined up for his first Stakes race and duly won by a head. Af­ter a short los­ing streak the horse was sold twice for $25,000 in the space of a few weeks, ul­ti­mately end­ing up with Sam Ru­bin, who owned him un­til the end of his ca­reer.

John Henry was of­fered to lead­ing trainer Char­lie Whit­ting­ham but he re­fused to train him and spent the rest of his ca­reer try­ing to find a horse to beat him, fail­ing on 19 dif­fer­ent oc­ca­sions. Even­tu­ally Whit­ting­ham de­clared his only chance of bet­ter­ing the geld­ing was to out live him. He failed in that too.

In 1978 John Henry ran in a claimer and won eas­ily be­fore be­ing switched to turf and a longer dis­tance where he hacked up by four­teen lengths.Six more races he won or placed in be­fore John Henry scored by twelve lengths in an Ar­ling­ton hand­i­cap, his jockey re­sort­ing to the whip at ev­ery stride de­spite be­ing well clear. Sam Ru­bin wasn’t im­pressed and sacked the jockey in the win­ners en­clo­sure.

Over the next two years John Henry con­sis­tently won or was placed in good races from Florida to New York to Cal­i­for­nia. Dur­ing this time he won his first Grade 1 event and then recorded his sixth con­sec­u­tive vic­tory in such events when tak­ing the Hol­ly­wood In­ter­na­tional Hand­i­cap. John Henry signed off the 1980 sea­son with eight wins and four places from 12 races and was ac­claimed the U.S. Cham­pion Turf Horse, but the best was yet to come. Four straight wins in top races started the 1981 sea­son, in­clud­ing a sec­ond Hol­ly­wood In­vi­ta­tion Hand­i­cap. A close de­feat was then fol­lowed by a win­ning jaunt to Bel­mont in New York be­fore a trip to Chicago.

This was the in­au­gu­ral run­ning of The Ar­ling­ton Mil­lion, the world’s first mil­lion dol­lar race, which quickly es­tab­lished it­self as one of the world’s top races and had al­ready at­tracted an ex­cel­lent in­ter­na­tional line up in­clud­ing Mrs Penny, Fin­gal’s Cave and Madam Gay.

At the first turn John Henry was rac­ing wide from a bad draw and dropped back to eighth place, lost more ground to the rear of the field, swung across onto the rail and ap­peared hope­lessly beaten, ex­cept no­body told the horse. With a de­ter­mi­na­tion rarely seen John Henry set off in hot

pur­suit up the rails into fifth place around the home turn and chased down the front run­ners be­fore clos­ing pow­er­fully, hand over fist, on the leader, The Bart. They crossed the line to­gether and it seemed at first as if the gal­lant geld­ing had just failed, the com­men­ta­tors be­liev­ing The Bart had just held on and even the un­of­fi­cial re­sult giv­ing it to the Ir­ish horse un­til the photo fin­ish re­vealed he had got his nose in front just where it mat­tered most to record a sen­sa­tional vic­tory. A mag­nif­i­cent bronze statue of John Henry and The Bart fight­ing out the fin­ish, called “Against All Odds,” now stands over­look­ing the pad­dock at Ar­ling­ton Park in com­mem­o­ra­tion.

He then won fur­ther races on both dirt and grass, the for­mer be­ing the Jockey Club Cup, one of the most im­por­tant races for older horses, be­fore trav­el­ling back across the coun­try where he ex­tended his sea­sons vic­to­ries to eight to be­come lead­ing money earner in the world.At the end of the sea­son John Henry was named Horse of the Year and also won the Awards for Cham­pion Older Horse and Cham­pion Turf Horse.

A sec­ond Santa Anita Hand­i­cap and a third Oak Tree Turf were the main re­wards from a short 1982 sea­son where a se­ri­ous in­jury kept John Henry off the course for many months. His re­turn in July 1983 saw him back in the win­ners en­clo­sure be­fore a re­turn to Chicago for the Ar­ling­ton Mil­lion, los­ing by just a neck to Tolomeo. Back in Cal­i­for­nia he won the Hol­ly­wood Turf Cup and was again named the Cham­pion Turf Horse as his life­time earn­ings reached a world record $4,255,210.

In 1984, now at the age of nine, John Henry twice fin­ished placed be­hind the Ken­tucky Derby win­ner, Gato del Sol, be­fore smash­ing the track record when win­ning his next race. Sec­ond place and an­other win were fol­lowed by The Ar­ling­ton Mil­lion, which had a very strong field, in­clud­ing the cham­pion mare Royal Hero­ine as well as Gato Del Sol. Royal Hero­ine, un­lucky not to be still un­beaten, started fast and kept the lead from the out­set with John Henry only a few lengths away in third place. They kept the same or­der at a crack­ing pace all the way round, then in the stretch John Henry moved through to race briefly along­side the tal­ented filly be­fore pow­er­ing ahead. John Henry was ar­guably at his peak and made it look easy as he re­gained his crown, pulling clear close home to win by 1¾ lengths with Royal Hero­ine sec­ond and Gato Del Sol third. To date John Henry is still the only horse to have won the race twice. Royal Hero­ine would later win at the in­au­gu­ral Breed­ers’ Cup. Next was a ti­tanic race for the Turf Clas­sic which John

he was bad na­tured, small in stature and back­ward at the knee, a con­di­tion that usu­ally short­ens a rac­ing ca­reer

Henry won by a neck be­fore trav­el­ling to New Jersey where he had to give lumps of weight away to much younger ri­vals. Well be­hind from the start, eighth down the back stretch and fifth into the straight John Henry smashed them aside in the home stretch to win as he pleased. Cross­ing the line John Henry had equalled the track record time. This was also his 39th vic­tory and what strikes most about his in­cred­i­ble will to win is that thir­teen of those vic­to­ries were gained in photo finishes.

This year was the start of the Breed­ers’ Cup se­ries, the rich­est sin­gle day of horse rac­ing in the world, which was to be held on Novem­ber 10, 1984 at Hol­ly­wood Park. John Henry, de­spite com­ing off a four race win­ning streak, was not orig­i­nally aimed at this in­au­gu­ral run­ning and only a late de­ci­sion in Oc­to­ber was made to sup­ple­ment John Henry to the 1½ mile, $2 mil­lion Turf Cup at a cost of $200,000. Sam Ru­bin prophet­i­cally stated, “It’s a stupid thing to do. I’m do­ing it for the horse, for the jockey, for the trainer. I could have done without it. I hope he comes out of the race healthy; that’s what I hope.” Shortly be­fore the race John Henry was found to have a strained lig­a­ment in his left fore­leg and was with­drawn from the race. He would never race again.

John Henry was soon named Horse of the Year again, be­com­ing the old­est horse to be so hon­oured. He was also ac­corded the ti­tle of Cham­pion Turf Horse for the fourth time.

He was trained for the 1985 sea­son but a ten­don in­jury forced his re­tire­ment which was of­fi­cially an­nounced at a re­tire­ment cer­e­mony at Hol­ly­wood Park, at­tended by an in­cred­i­ble 46,000 peo­ple. The first horse in the world to win $3m and ev­ery sum there­after, John Henry re­tired with a world record haul of $6,597,947 (not bad for an $1,100 year­ling) as he went to the Ken­tucky Horse Park in Lex­ing­ton, where he at­tracted thou­sands of vis­i­tors ev­ery year.

John Henry won 17 ma­jor races and was elected a mem­ber of the Amer­i­can Rac­ing Hall of Fame and apart from Ar­ling­ton Park he also has a statue in his hon­our at Santa Anita where he was un­beaten in eleven races span­ning four years.

On Oc­to­ber 8, 2007, he was put down at the age of 32 when suf­fer­ing kid­ney fail­ure. John Henry was buried on the night of his death at a spot in front of his pad­dock. Such was his stand­ing that a me­mo­rial ser­vice was held at the park on Oc­to­ber 19. Above the grave is a stone in­scribed: “If tears could build a stair­way, and mem­o­ries a lane, I’d walk right up to Heaven, and bring you home again.”

There is also a statue of him stand­ing at the Ken­tucky Horse Park. En­graved un­der it are the sim­ple words: “John Henry, A Last­ing Le­gend.”

John Henry

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