I took my 7-year-old son to visit the Old Man on a recent Sunday afternoon.
It’s been almost 20 years since I’d seen him, and the first time for Matthew. You know how time gets away. The Old Man’s health has not been too good lately so a visit was essential.
First-time visits can be awkward, so I gave Matthew some background on the drive over. I wanted him to appreciate who he was meeting. When the Old Man was at his prime, I told Matthew, he really was something; a true champion. He wowed them across the country—heck, around the world. The Old Man notched victories from the steamy, Spanish moss-draped tracks of Louisiana, to the rolling hills of upstate New York and out to the sunny valleys of California. He even took them on in Tokyo, where the crowds made him a heavy favorite. Sure, that contest didn’t pan out, but the Old Man never lost his grit. He bounced back strong enough to capture a couple more championship titles. And unlike many competitors whose will and skills eventually wane, the Old Man was tough to the end. He won his last four races, three of them grade Is.
That was John Henry, a fighter who now at age 32 is running a very different kind of race. It’s a race that either all of us win or none of us win, depending on your perspective.
The Old Man gave his handlers at the Kentucky Horse Park a scare earlier this month when blood tests indicated he might be developing kidney problems. John Henry received some intravenous fluids for three days and has improved. A recent Central Kentucky heat wave has not been helping. It was a hazy, 92-degree day when Matthew and I visited the Old Man. Brown pastures spotted with pale green lined the roadway leading to the park. When we got to John Henry’s stall, we found him parked at the screen door in front of a large, water-cooled fan.
“The heat has made things a lot worse,” said Cathy Roby, barn manager at the Hall of Champions, where John Henry has lived since 1985. The Old Man has Cushings disease, a hormone imbalance that, among other things, makes it hard for him to regulate his body heat. He was not drinking enough and got dehydrated. Roby said she thought they were going to lose John Henry a week ago.
True to form, the Old Man has gained some of his strength back and is eating. Former trainer Bob Donato visited recently. He told Roby that John Henry’s body will wear out long before his spirit ever does.
The health scare has brought a lot of well-wishers besides Donato. A woman from Detroit drove 300 miles to see John Henry when she heard he wasn’t doing well. After the visit, she drove right back because she had to get to work. There have been many others, an additional 25-30 people a day, from Iowa, Maryland, and Oregon. California horseman Lewis Cenicola, who was John Henry’s exercise rider for six years, has been to see him. The people who were at the Old Man’s side during the glory years and the fans who loved watching him run bring gifts of chocolate-covered mini-doughnuts (which he loves), peppermints, cookies, carrots, and bananas. They bring cards, several of which are posted next to his stall door. The messages wish the Old Man well and plead with him not to quit. Not yet. His race has been a long one, and he has nothing more to prove. Still, it’s hard to see the great ones go. I see the Old Man in my mind, leaning his hind end against a stall wall, using it like a cane to steady himself in front of the fan.
“Come on, Daddy, let’s go see the other horses,” Matthew said after we had visited with John Henry for about half an hour.
I lingered at the stall door, watching the Old Man’s mane blowing in the cool artificial breeze.
“Just a minute,” I told Matthew. “I’m not ready to say goodbye.”
Editor’s note: The Kentucky Horse Park publishes daily updates about John Henry on its Web site at www.kyhorsepark.com.
The reports are posted in the “News and Media” section.