Graham Buddry remembers the career of John Henry
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.”