John Henry, a true superstar of the racing world, has died at the age of 32. The venerable gelding, winner of 39 of his 83 races and twice North American Horse of the Year, was put down at the Kentucky Horse Park, his retirement home since 1985.
Thirty-two is a tremendous age for a horse, the equivalent of something like 110 in human years. Those closest to him knew the end was near; he had been suffering intermittently from kidney failure and his typical uncertain temper had been mellowing. "John had always been known for his biting and kicking," said Cathy Roby, barn manager at the establishment's Hall of Champions. "But he had gotten to the point where he wasn't really trying, He wasn't John any more. He was ready to go."
The park's director, John Nicholson, put it more poetically. "A mighty heart has at long last yielded to time," he said. "Racing has lost a legend and many people have lost a personal hero."
And that is a most valid point, for horses are first and foremost the attraction. John Henry's story put him firmly into the inspirational category. Though he at one time held the US earnings record, he was not the best horse ever to race there. But his rise from the bottom of the pile to the top put him first past the post in the charisma stakes.
John Henry was foaled in Kentucky on 9 March, 1975. He had two nonentities for parents and although the name of his birthplace, Golden Chance Farm, was perhaps an omen, it was not immediately apparent.
The bay foal was small, ugly and mean-spirited, with terrible forelegs. As he grew his knees and attitude grew worse and in a fit of pique bashed his head against his box wall when he went to the sales, and appeared in the ring with blood all over his face.
His vendors were glad to get a bid of $1,100; his new owner almost immediately regretted it. The youngster was intractable, almost dangerous. His habit of stamping metal water buckets flat earned him his name, after the "steel-drivin' man" of folklore. He was resold six months later for just $2,200.
His next owner gelded him, which brought improvement. And he did win, in minor company. At Evangeline Downs in Louisiana, amid a hurricane warning, with a dark sky overhead he ploughed through a river of mud with the determination that became his trademark.
The only time he was happy was when he was racing but, as he was competing in claimers he seemed mediocre and changed hands twice more before a New Yorker, Sam Rubin, bought him, unseen, over the phone for $25,000, his first racehorse. And life changed for both parties. Sent to Bob Donato, who switched him from dirt to grass, and then Lefty Nickerson, John Henry became a contender.
But it was when he joined California-based Ron McNally at five that his career skyrocketed. He became adept at the highest level on both dirt and turf; he won two Arlington Millions, including the first in 1981 by a nose, two Santa Anita handicaps, three Oak Tree Invitationals, three Hollywood Invitationals, a Jockey Club Gold Cup.
He won 16 Grade One races in all, the last aged nine, and retired with earnings of more than $6.5m. Rubin, who died last year, once said: "What started as a lark and a game developed into a tale of fantasy."
He was Horse Of The Year at the ages of six and nine, was Horse of the Decade for the 1980s and was loved not so much for his talent, but as an against-the-odds streetfighter. Chris McCarron, who rode him in his last 14 races, said: "Everywhere he raced, his presence doubled the size of a normal crowd. He did so much for racing, even after he retired. He will be sorely missed but forever in our hearts."
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