Commentary: Old Friend

There are other places in this magazine where you can read about John Henry’s humble beginnings, his legendary racing career, and his wonderful retirement. This is not about that.

My friend John died Oct. 8. 

He was my friend for 26 years, and, with the exception of my family and two friends, I knew him longer and better than anyone else on Earth.

We met for the first time Dec. 6, 1981. It was my first visit to the track as a credentialed member of the media. Having started a college internship at the Thoroughbred of California magazine earlier that week, I met his van from Santa Anita when he shipped over for the Hollywood Turf Cup (now gr. IT). With his faithful groom Jose Mercado at his side, John Henry walked a bit, took a drink of water, and stared directly at me—daring me through the lens of my camera. He looked regal, like the champion he knew he was. Except for the droplets running down his chin. The photo still hangs in my dad’s office.

And so it began. There were many other races, many other photos. One stands out. In the summer of 1983, I walked with John and Jose as they went to school in the paddock. En route, the horse stopped and pricked his ears. I took the shot. The motor drive on the camera caught his attention, and he turned to face me. “Come on, Jose,” I said, “let’s go.” Jose pulled gently on the shank, but the horse stood firm. “John wants you to take his picture,” Jose said. So I did. I made it into a poster, which helped pay bills in the early years while pursuing my dream of working in the racing industry.

I went to work in Kentucky in 1985, the same month John was retired to the Kentucky Horse Park. Homesick, I would often drive there after work, climb the back fence, and go talk to John. He was the one friend I had from home and he, too, missed his California family. 

There were many other visits over the years, introducing John to my parents, partner, and friends, sharing the story of his life on Fox Sports and, most recently, on HorseRacing TV. Last October, I held him in his stall while the staff put on one last show of the year. As we stood there alone, I told him about the sudden death of my mare and how much I missed her. John snapped me out of my melancholy as only a friend could. He bit my jacket, nearly removing my appendix in the process.

I last saw John five days before he died. My expense report said the trip to Kentucky was for an HRTV shoot at Overbrook Farm, a meeting at Keeneland, and a sales call at Claiborne, all of which is true. But I also went to say goodbye to my friend. His devoted caretaker, Cathy Roby, had him out of his paddock. One look and I knew it was time. His legs were still cold and tight, but the weight loss was staggering. The fire in his eyes was down to a wisp. I stroked his head, his ears, his neck, and the recent half-dollar-sized patch of gray that had sprouted on his forehead. Instead of fighting back, he closed his eyes. Cathy asked if I could stay longer. I wanted to tell her “only if he could.” She knew, as did I, that I would not see him again. 

As hard as it must have been for John’s handlers to witness his long goodbye, it gave the sport a chance to remember what a champion looked like. John Henry won his first race and his last. And 37 others in the 2,700 or so days in between. They always said he would go when he was good and ready. By last week, he was ready, even if we were not.

At 4:38 p.m. Pacific time on that Monday, the call I knew was coming finally came. Caller I.D. told me it was the Hall of Champions barn. I knew what news the call would bring. Not answering it wouldn’t make it not true.

The quote on the poster is from Shakespeare: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness.” 

Goodbye, old friend.


Amy Zimmerman is executive producer of HRTV and director of broadcasting for Santa Anita.