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Iconic champion John Henry euthanized at Horse Park

By Maryjean Wall

The steel-drivin’ race horse who became a $6.6 million winner and an icon in retirement for the Kentucky Horse Park has died at age 32.

John Henry was euthanized at about 7:05 p.m. Monday, according to Horse Park Executive Director John Nicholson. The aged gelding had not been getting along well since the heat wave in early August, when he began suffering kidney problems.

“There was a real difference in his demeanor and his sparkle, between Friday and Sunday,” Nicholson said. “He seemed to be going in a downward cycle again.”

The gelding had been receiving intravenous fluids periodically to treat dehydration. He had lost a considerable amount of weight.

The decision was debated and discussed Sunday, Nicholson said. “I think we’re going to hear a lot in the days ahead how he’s going to live on in memory,” Nicholson said. “We’re going to continue to celebrate his birthday every year. “There will be other great horses at the park, but not horses that will touch people’s lives like this one did.”

Nicholson said “the manner of his going was very touching. Everybody had a chance to say goodbye. It was a dignified and fitting end.”

Nicholson said that one of John Henry’s jockeys, Chris McCarron, was with him Monday afternoon for a long time, but he did not want to be there when the veterinarian came.

“There were lots of tears, a lot of laughter, a lot of hugs, very tender goodbyes with John,” Nicholson said. “He went very peacefully.”

He will be buried at the front of the Hall of Champions, where he has lived since the mid-1980s. The Horse Park has not said whether there will be a memorial service.

With John Henry’s death has passed an era in thoroughbred racing that probably never will be duplicated. John Henry was the final survivor of a triumvirate of renowned geldings — Kelso and Forego were the others — who ruled the tracks from the 1960s through the 1980s.

These three geldings made their careers under conditions that no longer are imposed on race horses. They carried high weight assignments, sometimes more than 130 pounds, while also setting track records.

All three were so durable that they returned year after year to successfully race against horses a fraction of their ages. John Henry surpassed the others in this, becoming one of only two horses ever to win a major stakes at the advanced age of 9.

Kelso, five times Horse of the Year, was the first of this amazing trio. He was a formidable competitor during the early 1960s and is consistently rated in the top five on lists of the greatest horses of all time, behind such horses as Man o’ War, Secretariat, and Citation.

Then came Forego, three times Horse of the Year during the 1970s. Forego once carried 137 pounds while spotting 18 pounds to the younger Honest Pleasure and 28 pounds to some others when winning the 1976 Marlboro Cup.

He was retired in 1978 and eventually moved to the Kentucky Horse Park, where he died in 1997.

John Henry dominated the early 1980s. His durability was such that he seemed like he would race forever. Racing fans loved him for this.

“You could go to bed in 1982 and wake up sometime in 1983 knowing that John Henry would still be out there getting ready for another race,” wrote racing reporter Jay Hovdey in The Horsemen’s Journal in 1985. “He was Joe Louis, the Yankees, the Packers, the Celtics, a golden hook upon which to hang the national pride.”

John Henry was more than that. He was a storybook race horse who “came up from the ghetto,” as trainer Ron McAnally was fond of saying. McAnally was the final of several trainers John Henry had through eight years of racing and the trainer who campaigned him through his greatest victories.

The gelding’s story began on Golden Chance Farm near Paris, as an offspring of nondescript parents whose names were Ole Bob Bowers and Once Double. John Henry was born with structural defects that set his knees too far back on the joints. No horseman would have taken a serious look at him in a horse sale, for this “back at the knees” condition could possibly have predisposed him to breaking down on the track.

But someone did buy the colt, paying $1,100 for him. This was John Callaway of Louisville, who once recalled his first sight of John Henry when the young horse walked into the Keeneland sales ring. John had banged his head in his stall and “looked like a drowned rat with blood running off his forehead,” Callaway told Sports Illustrated.

Callaway gave the colt his name, John Henry, explaining later that he liked to name horses for songs. But he did not keep him long, for John’s “back at the knees” condition seemed like it was getting worse.

Callaway entered him in a sale at Keeneland in 1977, with Harold Snowden Jr. of Lexington buying him for $2,200. “When I sold him it was 10 degrees below zero and there was nobody there and it was the last of the sale,” Callaway said in an interview during the 1980s.

“No one dreamed he’d have ability,” Callaway added. “I laugh. But I want to cry.”

John Henry was castrated on account of his ill-temper and went through a succession of stables before a New Yorker named Sam Rubin acquired him for $25,000. With Rubin, the gelding’s fortunes turned.

Rubin eventually placed John Henry with New York trainer V. J. “Lefty” Nickerson, and the gelding began to climb the ladder of success. But it was upon reaching the barn of McAnally, in California, that John Henry finally “found his groove.”

He blossomed on California’s turf courses and came to dominate American grass racing. A variety of jockeys rode John Henry, including Laffit Pincay Jr. and Bill Shoemaker. But some of greatest victories occurred after pairing him with Chris McCarron in 1983.

He became the first horse to win $3 million, then $5 million, then $6.5 million.

He was Horse of the Year in 1981 and 1984, champion older horse in 1981, champion male grass horse in 1980, 1981, 1983, and 1984 and a winner of 30 stakes including the Turf Classic, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and the Budweiser-Arlington Million twice.

When John Henry was retired — the first time — in July 1985, he was the all-time leading money winner with $6.6 million. Rubin, his owner, retired him to Kentucky Horse Park where the gelding lived for the next seven months.

Then, in a decision that surprised the racing world, Rubin elected to return John Henry to the track in 1986. He never raced again, however, and remained permanently at the Horse Park upon returning there that year.

The acquisition of John Henry was seen as a major coup at the time for the Horse Park. California race tracks wanted to house the gelding in his retirement and Rubin, his owner, had also thought he might retire him in the East.

But former Keeneland President Ted Bassett persuaded McAnally to intercede with Rubin, and McAnally “was responsible for getting him to the park,” Bassett once said.

John Henry’s retirement to the park became the catalyst for collecting the group of horses that became the first permanent residents at the Hall of Champions.

McAnally regularly visited the gelding when in Lexington for the races or horse sales. So did McCarron, his jockey. In recent years the Horse Park began holding annual birthday parties for John Henry. The last party, to mark his 32nd birthday in March, drew about 150 people, many of them from different parts of the country.

Published in Lexington Herald-Leader on Oct. 8, 2007
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