When Shelley Hunter was asked by officials at the Kentucky Horse Park to create a sculpture of legendary racehorse John Henry earlier this year, she not only felt honored, but a strong sense of karma. You see, Hunter was introduced to both sculpting and John Henry during the same week in 1987.
“I starting coming to the Horse Park for workshops and that’s when I met John Henry,” said Hunter, who is now the executive director of The American Academy of Equine Art, which is located inside the Horse Park in Lexington, Ky. “I remember when I first started learning about sculpting we used John for our live anatomy class. So, things have definitely come full circle. It is a tremendous honor to be chosen as the person to create this piece of art.”
The piece that Hunter created to honor John Henry, who was euthanized Oct. 8, 2007 at age 32, is a half-life bronze statue that will be placed at his gravesite in the “Hall of Champions” portion of the Horse Park. The statue, which is 31 inches at the withers and stands on a pedestal, will be unveiled to the public on Oct. 8. It will be a lasting tribute to one of the most popular Thoroughbred racehorses in the nation’s history. John Henry lived at the Horse Park since 1985.
Hunter worked on the privately funded sculpture in her studio at the Horse Park so people could watch her as she created it.
“It took me three months of solid concentration to finish it,” said Hunter, who has also done a portrait of Forego which sits right outside the Horse Park museum. “I tried to pick the brain of the people who worked with John every day. I wanted it to reflect his personality.
“John had a strong sense of his own self worth. He knew he was boss. So I tried impart that in the sculpture. For the tail, I tried to add movement, like it was blowing in the wind – much like his stormy personality.
“We used to have an ongoing joke here: You’re not a real member of the Champions barn until you’ve bled from a John Henry bite.”
On the racetrack, John Henry was a two-time Horse of the Year and was known as racing's "Blue Collar Hero." The son of Ole Bob Bowers won 39 of 83 races and earned $6,591,860. Sixteen of those wins came in grade I races. Among his wins was the inaugural Arlington Million in 1981, a race which he won again as a 9-year-old in 1984. For most of his racing career, he was owned by Sam and Dorothy Rubin's Dotsam Stable and was trained by Ron McAnally.
The American Academy of Equine Art, Inc. is a non-profit, tax exempt organization founded in 1980. A decade later, it became a teaching organization and throughout the year it offers a series of drawing, painting and sculpting workshops at the Horse Park and other locations. Hunter teaches many of the classes.
“We promote equine art and artists, and people come from all around the world,” said Hunter, who began working full-time at the Horse Park three years ago. “We put on shows and classes. I have an art degree but never did sculpting before I came here. I fell in love with it.
“I’m excited for people to see the finished John Henry product. I tried to give him a regal presence. He deserves it.”