Remembering John Henry - By Jon White

(Originally published in the August 21, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

Can it really be 25 years since John Henry was retired from racing?

At 6 o’clock in the morning on Aug. 26, 1985, I looked on as Lewis Cenicola led 10-year-old John Henry out of his stall at trainer Ron McAnally’s Del Mar barn.

“Well, Pappy, I guess this might be your final trip,” Cenicola said softly.

As John Henry’s regular exercise rider, Cenicola had been aboard the Kentucky-bred son of Ole Bob Bowers for miles and miles of gallops and workouts. This time, however, Cenicola led the four-legged legend to a large horse van parked next to the McAnally barn. On that van, John Henry, whose retirement due to a tendon issue had been announced earlier in the summer, would begin the journey to his new Kentucky home.

As the van slowly pulled away, John Henry, who once sold for just $1,100 as a yearling at Keeneland, departed Del Mar as the world’s richest Thoroughbred with career earnings of $6,591,860. The destination of John Henry’s long trip was his retirement residence, the Kentucky Horse Park, located not all that far from his birthplace, Golden Chance Farm.

With the exception of an unsuccessful attempt to return John Henry to the races in 1986, he would spend a very long retirement in comfort at the Kentucky Horse Park until his death at age 32 on Oct. 8, 2007.

John Henry Slideshow
John Henry Remembering a legend.
Many are of the opinion racing has been hurt by the lack of a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. But the absence of a gelding with the magnetism and longevity of a Kelso, a Forego, or a John Henry also has been a setback of sorts for the sport in the last couple of decades.

John Henry had such star appeal that his appearance always meant a spike in attendance. His retirement was the lead story on the front page of USA Today. People magazine chose him one of the 25 most intriguing people of 1984, along with such other celebrities as Michael Jackson, Mary Lou Retton, and Lee Iacocca.

John Henry was voted Horse of the Year in 1981 and 1984. Remarkably, his second Horse of the Year title came at age 9. He won 39 of 83 lifetime starts, with 30 of his victories coming in stakes races. His sustained excellence was such that he was a stakes winner every year from ages 2 through 9.

The majority of John Henry’s victories came for owners Dorothy and Sam Rubin, who raced as Dotsam Stable. After John Henry’s retirement I asked Sam Rubin which of John Henry’s races was his favorite. Unable to limit it to just one, Rubin said there were three he cherished the most.

One race Rubin said he enjoyed immensely was John Henry’s win in the 1978 Chocolatetown Handicap at Penn National.

“They gave us a big cup filled with Hershey Kisses,” Rubin said.

Rubin also thought John Henry’s 1981 win by a nose over The Bart in the inaugural Arlington Million, the first $1 million Thoroughbred race in history, was special. And Rubin termed John Henry’s come-from-behind victory in his final race, the 1984 Ballantine’s Scotch Classic Handicap at the Meadowlands, as “absolutely unbelievable.”

The morning John Henry left Del Mar in 1985, I asked McAnally what he thought was John Henry’s greatest performance. Again, McAnally could not limit it to one. He considered five of John Henry’s races to be his most outstanding.

McAnally, like Rubin, selected John Henry’s 1981 Arlington Million and 1984 career finale at the Meadowlands. McAnally’s other choices were John Henry’s triumphs in the 1980 San Juan Capistrano Handicap at about 1 3/4 miles (“because he led all the way in such a long race under 126 pounds”), the 1981 Santa Anita Handicap through the disqualification of Perrault (“because he won off works and became the first horse to win the Big ’Cap twice”), and the 1984 Arlington Million in his final year of racing (“because, as a 9-year-old, he beat a filly in Royal Heroine who would go on to be named grass filly of the year”).

For personal reasons, I treasured one of John Henry’s victories not mentioned by either Rubin or McAnally—the Hollywood Invitational Handicap May 17, 1981. It was the first time I had the pleasure of seeing John Henry race. But of even more significance to me, I met my future wife, Tracy Gantz, that day at Hollywood Park. It certainly was a day I will never forget. 

Jon White is an HRTV/Santa Anita TV commentator, a Fairpelx Park steward, and former Daily Racing Form writer.

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