Shelley Hunter admires her finished sculpture of John Henry as KHP Pres. John Nicholson, center, and Bill Oster, founder of the John Henry Memorial Fund, look on.

Shelley Hunter admires her finished sculpture of John Henry as KHP Pres. John Nicholson, center, and Bill Oster, founder of the John Henry Memorial Fund, look on.

Matt Goins

John Henry Memorial Statue Unveiled

By Erin Ryder

A year after the death of racehorse John Henry, fans now have a lasting monument and a dedicated place to remember their champion.

A bronze statue by artist Shelley Hunter has taken its place at John's gravesite, just outside the Kentucky Horse Park's Hall of Champions paddock that John called home for 22 of his 32 years.

Just as they did at John's memorial service last year, fans, park officials, Hall of Champions staff, and the people who knew John during his racing career—including jockey Chris McCarron and breeder Verna Lehman—gathered to remember the feisty gelding. Due to impending rain, discussion of the monument was moved from the gravesite to the nearby Hall of Champions pavilion, a place where John's story had been told around 20,000 times.
Having a place to continue telling stories about John was one of the chief considerations for Bill Oster, a Hall of Champions volunteer and founder of the John Henry Memorial Fund who began planning the statue at the horse's 30th birthday party.  Oster said he hears John Henry stories everywhere—from people standing in front of the horse's stall door, to a recent veterinary conference in Louisiana, to grooms in the shed row at Santa Anita. Everyone seems to have a story about racing's "Blue Collar Hero," who was known as much for his temperament as his ability.

"I thought we needed a place where people can sit, reflect, and tell their stories about John," Oster said.

Oster asked Hunter, the executive director of The American Academy of Equine Art, which has its offices just down the hill from John's old paddock, to create the statue.

She said her "world stopped" when she was offered the piece, the creation of which she called "one of the best experiences of my life."

John's fans and admirers have been frequent visitors to Hunter's studio, keeping tabs on the work as it progressed. Some brought small tokens and asked her to have them melted into the bronze when the statue was cast. These included a small gold cross and chain, a bronze bracelet, pennies, even a set of Marine Corps dog tags. Eventually, Hunter had two handfuls of things people had brought to include in the statue.

But there was a problem—it was just too much. The amount of metal would have compromised the strength of the bronze. So Hunter and those at the Tuska Studio foundry placed all the mementos into a stainless steel box, which was welded shut and placed into the statue's chest—right where the horse's heart would be.
"They will be a part of John for as long as this thing stands," Hunter said of those devoted fans. "This is a statue with a heart—and that heart is full of love."

To read more about John Henry and learn the history of this amazing Thoroughbred, check out his biography written by Steve Haskin, John Henry: Racing's Grand Old Man.

John's statue stands 31 inches at the withers. His head is up, and his tail is blowing in the breeze. Those who knew the horse in life will instantly recognize his defiant, domineering expression. He is perched upon a solid black granite pedestal, engraved with the words: John Henry; A Lasting Legend; 1975-2007.

Donations to help cover the cost of the statue can be made through Bill Oster at

Beyond the statue, there's no risk of John Henry's name fading into history. His name is now associated with an equine adoption fair and fundraising effort to assist distressed horses throughout the state of Kentucky.  In June, more than 500 people attended the inaugural John Henry Memorial Equine Adoption Fair, which raised $15,000.

John Henry was a two-time Horse of the Year. 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.

John Henry Photos