Dan Liebman

Dan Liebman Editor-in-Chief

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Commentary: Have Courage

It was a routine early December night in Kentucky, when suddenly residents of South Frankfort were startled by late night fireworks. The pyrotechnics display from near the state capitol could mean only one thing—Kentucky’s first female governor had closed the deal to land the Toyota manufacturing plant.

The official announcement was made Dec. 11, 1985, a ground-breaking ceremony was held the following May, and the first Camry rolled off the assembly line May 27, 1988.

This Oct. 19, that former governor, Martha Layne Collins, was speaking just a few miles from the Georgetown, Ky., Toyota plant that since 2001 has helped the Camry become the top-selling car in the United States.

Bringing Toyota to Kentucky would be the crowning achievement of Collins’ term in office (1983-87), but it would not be the only thing she would be remembered for…especially to horse lovers.

Collins stood at the podium near the Hall of Champions at the Kentucky Horse Park, which opened in 1978 during the term of Gov. Julian Carroll, but which was described during the subsequent term of Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. as a “white elephant.”

Collins was determined to prove her predecessor’s statement wrong. Others were, too. It was during the Brown administration that then-Keeneland president James E. “Ted” Bassett III joined the group trying to put the Horse Park on firm footing.

On Oct. 19, Bassett credited trainer Ron McAnally as the key in convincing owner Sam Rubin to send John Henry to the Horse Park in 1985. But Bassett, Collins, and countless others also played key roles in the blue-collar hero calling the Hall of Champions home for 23 years.

“Without John Henry, we wouldn’t have gotten Forego, Bold Forbes, Rambling Willie, and the others,” Bassett said following the Oct. 19 memorial service for John Henry, who was euthanized Oct. 8 at age 32.

Chris McCarron, the jockey most often associated with John Henry, signed autographs following the ceremony for many of the grand gelding’s numerous fans in attendance.

McCarron was asked his most lasting memory of John Henry. The day before John Henry left Del Mar for the Horse Park, McCarron walked him through the backside. Upon returning to the barn, some hay bales were stacked upon which McCarron’s daughters could sit and a photo was taken of McCarron, his wife, Judy, and their children with this special horse. “That hangs in my house today,” the retired jockey said with a reflective tone in his voice and a glossy look in his eyes.

It is interesting McCarron mentioned his children because it is his impact on youth for which John Henry may, more than anything else, have truly made a difference.

Perhaps as many as one million school children have had the pleasure of seeing John Henry at the Horse Park, the facilities’ executive director, John Nicholson, told the crowd Oct. 19.

“We always told them this is not a story just about a horse,” Nicholson said. “This is a story about perseverance, about tenacity. This was a horse who captured our hearts because of his spirit.

“We had many children visit that were disadvantaged. Through John, we told them it is OK if not everyone believes in you. You can still succeed. If you don’t believe this, meet John Henry.

“For all these years, he was telling us things; to have courage, to believe in ourselves, to know that you are special.”

As Bassett recalled, John Henry hated training, and as such, McAnally would let his champion take his time in the mornings. “He would take 35-40 minutes just to walk to the track,” Bassett said. “We should all learn to be individuals, like John was.”

Many have called Bassett racing’s greatest ambassador. The same could be said of John Henry.