In Memoriam: John Henry Remembered by Those Who Knew Him Best

In Memoriam: John Henry Remembered by Those Who Knew Him Best
Photo: Stephanie L. Church
John Henry
Ron McAnally, John Henry's Trainer
They did a super job at the Horse Park. When I stopped by there in September during the Keeneland sale, it was about 5:30 at night, and there was only one young girl there in the tack room. I went over to his stall. I always bring him some treats. He was standing over in the corner very quiet, and I hollered to him. I said, “John.” He let out the loudest yell.
The only other time I've heard him yell that loud, I think, was when we retired him to the Horse Park (in 1985). Jose Mercado, his groom, was there. He slowly took the shank off him. The governor of Kentucky was there, too. And John let out a yell like, “What are you doing leaving me here?”
I started thinking-he always liked to have company. He would run in the San Juan Capistrano or the Sunset at Hollywood Park. The van would pull up before he had run, and we'd start loading horses to take to the next racetrack, and he'd get all excited like, “It's time to go.” So we learned from that not to ship the horses until after his race.
I thought went through my mind the first time we left him there in the middle of the paddock at the Horse Park (at his retirement) when I said to the girl at the time, “Do you have any other horses?” She said, “Yes, we have a lot of horses.” I said, “Would you mind bringing one of those horses up and putting him in the paddock next to him?” That's exactly what they did, and he calmed right down. He just wanted some company.
But back to this September. I went over to his stall, and he let out a yell as if to say, “I need some help.” And, of course, there was nothing I could do. So I knocked on the door and a little girl came out. She was kind of crying, and I said, “What's the matter?” She said, “He's not doing too good. The vet's been by here every day treating him. His kidneys are starting to go. We're just taking it one day at a time.”
Anyway, I was glad that I got to see him one last time.
I saw him at least once every year (usually during the sales). And sometimes if we ran a horse at Keeneland, like in the Queen Elizabeth or the Spinster and those races, then I'd drop in. I always would go to see him. He meant so much to our family and a lot of racing fans.
He never raced at Del Mar. We always prepared him there because they changed the Eddie Read around and made it a prep race for the Arlington Million. But we got him ready there a couple of times, but we never raced him there.
Most of that film that Amy Zimmerman (of HRTV) did, I couldn't believe the number of races that were all here at Santa Anita.
One year when Ray Sibille was riding here, the next day after we had won the (1982) Oak Tree Invitational, he was standing down at the gap with Eddie Delahoussaye, myself, and three or four other guys. Ray was standing there at the gap, and he said, “Yesterday, I really thought I had you.” His horse (Craelius) was three in front turning for home. He said, “I knew I was going to beat you that day. I looked over my shoulder, and I saw that shadow roll, and I said, 'Oh crap.' ”
(On the first Arlington Million, and how it looked like John Henry was beat.) We have that tape at home. You can see in slow motion when he put his head down--that was it.
He was a competitor. If you ran head and head with him, that's where he was at his best. But the way to beat him was right on the money. If you came from way back, like when Zalataia beat him (1983 Oak Tree Invitational). It was from way back.
(Discussing the loss in the 1983 Arlington Million) Turning for home, Chris (McCarron) was on the outside of this horse that lugs out. And Tolomeo comes through on the rail where he didn't see him, and he beats him. And you can see on the tape, where after John Henry spotted Tolomeo, he went after him. So any time he ever got beat--he was so competitive--it was always right on the money where he didn't see it coming.
(Did Charlie Whittingham ever beat John Henry?) I don't think Charlie ever beat us. Charlie said, “I'm just trying to outlive him,” and he didn't do that.
(On Mehmet beating John Henry in the 1982 Meadowlands Cup) It was on an off track. I remember that day at the Meadowlands. It was before we went to Japan. That was one thing that John didn't like. A lot of people didn't realize that he didn't like that kind of an off track. Even in the first Arlington Million, it had rained for three straight days, and the turf was soft. It took him a little while to get his rhythm up. I recall seeing the race down on the backside. Shoemaker always wanted to beat Lester Piggott, who was riding the filly, Mrs Penny. And he was right behind Piggott. Finally I could see John's head, and I knew his rhythm was up. It was about halfway through the race before he really got a hold of the track.
I remember when we took him to Golden Gate (1984 Golden Gate Handicap) and ran him again Kjell Qvale's horse, Silveyville. Silveyville got it the way he wanted it--right on the lead--and he had about five lengths on us going into the first turn. John was always very agile, especially going on turns. Silveyville only had two lengths going down the backside because John knew how to navigate those turns pretty good. And John really looked good, better than he had looked in a long time physically. His coat looked good. He was carrying his weight good. He won that race pretty easily.
The first time Shoe ever worked him before he rode him was at Hollywood Park. I think we were getting him ready for some race, and Shoe had never ridden him before. He came out and worked him. And Shoe never says anything. So he got off him and took his saddle off. I said, “What do you think, Bill?” He said, “He's a pro." And he was absolutely right.
(Discussing John Henry's ability on both dirt and turf.) That was one of the things we did, when Lou Eilken was secretary here at Santa Anita. That was kind of a little trick that we pulled. We figured we would get a little weight off by running him on the dirt. He used to work well on the dirt, and I knew he'd run good. He had never run on the dirt before (for McAnally). So Lou was a little bit generous the first time out. Anyway, we got the weight off.
He carried 130 in some races. That's about the top he had He won with 130. He had to carry a lot of dead weight.
(On the first Breeders' Cup in 1984 at Hollywood Park) He wasn't eligible, but Sam Rubin was going to supplement him. Right here at Santa Anita, we had a couple of vets--Dr. Jack Robbins and Dr. Rick Arthur and somebody else--and he had a little filling in one ankle. Both the vets said they wouldn't take the chance.
So I called Sam and I said, “Sam, here they are right here at the barn now.” Just to pre-enter was $130,000 or something. I said, “I don't know if we'll be able to do it or not. I don't want to hurt the horse, of course, and neither do you.” That was the first year. Marje Everett was waiting over at Hollywood Park the last day of the pre-entry. So Sam said, “I'll tell you what. You have the check there. He's earned it. Go ahead and take it over to Marje.” Then we didn't get to run. I didn't want to chance it.
One of the things I remember about John--it's been a few years--was when he was down at the other end of his paddock at the Horse Park. He had his ears glued--you could hear the Clydesdales on the road a little ways off--he was just glued on it. He was wondering what was going on. And I thought to myself, “This will be a good time to test him, to see if he knows me.” So I stood down at the other end of his paddock by the fence, and I hollered, “John.” He turned around and he looked and he just came RUNNING over to me. He just forgot about the horses, and I thought, “Well, that was gratifying.”
Lewis Cenicola, John Henry's exercise rider
(About his death) What a shame? But it had to come. I just saw him last month. When I'd go back to the sales, I used to see him all the time.
He was a neat horse. He was like an icon. Everybody would come out and see him. He'd bring out at least 20,000 people who would come out to the races just to see him.
He was nice to gallop, and smart. He took care of himself. He was just a smart horse, and that's probably what made him such a great horse. But he still had that toughness about him.
(Asked about how John Henry would stand before galloping in the mornings.) We talk about how smart he was. When we used to go back to the same tracks, Arlington and New York, he would stop at the same places. He knew exactly where he was all the time.
He shipped fine. We never had problems shipping the horse. Just in Japan he got a little sick. Once in a while, Eduardo would go (with the horse shipping), but usually it was just me and Jose Mercado (the groom). We used to go two or three days ahead.
I first got on him in 1979. There was another kid galloping him because I got off the racetrack for about a year, a year and a half. Then I came back and worked for Ronny because I worked for Ronny for like 17 years. I took a little break, and then I came back to the racetrack. I started getting on him in October of 79.
(Did the jockeys work him?) I used to work him all the time. Once in a while on the grass one of the jockeys would come out to work him, but I usually worked the horse. He was easy to work. He'd work fast--all you had to do was just sit on him. You didn't have to do too much with him.
(Would he remember you at the Horse Park?) Yeah, in fact I'd just walk in the stall.
Eduardo Inda, McAnally's assistant at the time
What a horse. He was a real champion. No medication-nothing. Super horse. Not too many horses you can say that about. What a racehorse. He was such a good horse.
(On memorable races) The one when Pincay was riding--I think it was here at Santa Anita. Shoemaker had him by three or four lengths, and he caught him, and he beat him a length and a half, two lengths.
Then he wins the first Arlington Million. I was in Del Mar. We took the horse early to Chicago, and Ronny stays here. So two days before the race, I came to Del Mar to run the horses, and Ronny goes back over there (to Chicago). I watch the race at home, and “Man,” I say, “We got beat.” I got in my car and went to the barn because we had a horse in the second race. I got to the barn, and the guy jumps up and down and says, “We won!” I said, “By disqualification?” I figured it had to be by disqualification because I thought he got beat. “No, no, no-he won,” the guy says. That's super.
(About how he would stand at the top of the stretch at Santa Anita in the mornings.) He liked that sound--pop, pop of the cameras.
Jack Robbins, veterinarian
He had a beautiful cadence in his gallops, a synchronous cadence. He had a really long reach for a not very big horse. He was a beautiful mover.
We nicknamed him John-John right away when he got to California. He was a fairly mean gelding in his stall--you knew why he was a gelding. He wasn't a pleasant horse to be around. You had to be careful when you'd go in and catch him. It was better to let Jose (Mercado, the groom) do it. What a good groom Jose was. He was devoted to that horse.
He was a horse that had very few problems. If you'd had a barn full of horses like him, a veterinarian would have starved to death.
(Robbins said that this is a quote he has said before that has been published.) The only time he had any problems was before the first Arlington Million. He pulled up dead lame before they were going to ship him to Chicago. We sent him to the X-ray lab and couldn't find anything. He had one area that was tender-I think it was where the ligament attached. I was very concerned because sometimes that's how a condylar fracture starts and you can't see it on the X-rays.
(Robbins said he treated John Henry to relieve the inflammation, and the horse was fine the next day.) I was scared to death when Shoe worked him a day or so later, but he was fine. They just shipped a little later than Ron originally wanted.
(Regarding John Henry not liking Dr. Rick Arthur, Robbins jokingly said) He didn't like Rick's beard. That's what I always told Rick. He liked me OK. I didn't have a beard.
I know he won several races at Oak Tree. He won the Clement Hirsch when it was called the Oak Tree Invitational several times (1980-82).
It's amazing that he lived to be 32 years of age. I went to see him a couple of times in Kentucky. The girl who took care of him at the Horse Park would send me Christmas cards and pictures.
Dr. Rick Arthur
Jack Robbins had actually retired the year before John Henry did, but he still did most of the work on him. He was John Henry's vet the whole time, though I certainly worked on him quite a bit--usually the routine stuff. I'm not sure the horse had $1,000 in vet bills during the four or five years we took care of him. He was a very sound horse.
The biggest problem was that he had a tendency to tie up. One time they were galloping him at Hollywood Park between races. He thought he was going to work, and he didn't. He tied up terribly, and we had to treat him fairly aggressively.
He was always a tough horse, and he never liked me. Down at Del Mar just before he retired, I wanted to get a photo of me holding the horse. So I was holding the shank and right after they took the photo he swallowed my arm right up to the elbow.
Jose Mercado, John Henry's groom who now works for Craig Lewis
He was very tough. I went to Chicago three times with him--Belmont, New York. I was his groom for six years.
He was a legend. He had a high temper. He was always trying to do more than he was supposed to--he was too good.
(What was he like in the paddock?) I couldn't hold him. He had to be facing the wall, against the people. Facing the people, I couldn't hold him.
(But he liked the crowds?) Yes, people would call his name, John Henry, and he would look. He was smart.
Eddie Delahoussaye, retired Hall of Fame jockey
The first time I saw John Henry was in Louisiana. I rode against him at Evangeline Downs. He won a 2-year-old stake there (the 1977 Lafayette Futurity). Phil Marino had him. He galloped horses and trained a little on the side. I even knew the kid who rode him, Alonzo Guajardo, because I used to ride with his dad and then rode against him.
Phil was at the Fair Grounds later, and he only had the one horse. John Henry was a gelding even then, and he would tear up the stall.
He was a tough old orse, I can tell you that. I rode against him in the first Arlington Million on The Bart. I thought I had him at the eighth pole, and he came back on. It was so close at the wire, nobody knew who won. I think the TV guy said I had won,and then had to come back and say John Henry had won. I wasn't sure either. I galloped out in front of Shoe, and he said, “What did you think?” I said, “I don't know, Shoe, it was too close.”
I beat John Henry a couple of times, but he beat me and everybody else the rest of the time. I beat him on a horse called Mehmet at the Meadowlands (in th 1982 Meadowlands Cup).
All those guys who rode him--Laffit, Shoemaker, McCarron--they were just passengers. And that's the kind you want to ride. When they asked him, he just gave it to them.
He was just one of those special horses that come along. We don't get too many of those horses.
Hal Snowden, who owned John Henry three different occasions
When they called me and asked me if I wanted to see him again, I had 30-40 minutes before they were going to put him down. I told them I’d like to remember the horse as I have him in my heart rather than seeing him on his last legs. I was driving, and I just kind of clutched the steering wheel and said, "This is a big loss," and it is. Immediately, something went right to my heart.
The horse came from nowhere. He was rejected by so many people, and he didn’t look like any kind of racehorse. People just didn’t feel he would pan out, and he started his life with the reputation of being a cull.
When John Calloway bought him, every vet asked him, "Were you drinking? He’s not going to stand training, you might as well get rid of him." I bought him, and the same question was asked many, many times of me. Regardless, the horse was able to overcome all professional opinions, and he climbed Mount Everest on his own. He didn’t do it once or twice, he climbed Mount Everest on many occasions, and he earned a lot of respect for those efforts.
It makes me feel good to just be able to say I was a small part of his life. I can remember the days with the horse quite vividly from the time I started to work with him. He was tearing up feed tubs and webbings at Keeneland, and he always had his own way of getting attention--but no one ever dreamt that the attention would come the way it did.
Back in those days I tried to sell the horse to so many people, people that were highly respected, and they said there was no way this horse is going to stand training.
When you go through life in this business you certainly meet a high number of people with a very good eye for a horse. John Henry changed a lot of the statements that professionals make. Now you can’t say "He won’t make it,’ because there are a few that have made it. Don’t ever use the word "never," because there’s been one that’s overcome the toughest odds.
Verna Lehmann, John Henry's breeder
I was there most of the afternoon until they put him down. I said, "I brought him into this world, I’ll stay and see him leave."
He was an interesting character. When he was just a weanling, he was cantankerous. He was not a well-behaved little horse, but we loved him anyway. I was looking at his registration picture the other day and I thought, ‘Well, he stood nicely there for once!’ When he was out in the pasture he liked to run, and we should have known then he would have been a runner and good racer.
When he was turned out in a group, the other little ones stayed away. I think were afraid of him. Once he started racing, going from state to state, I could only keep track of him by news and in the media. I followed him and when he came to Horse Park he became part of my life again.
I went to showings when they would bring stallions out and I’d watch him. I always remember the time when they took him and Forego and brought those two out together, which was unusual since you don’t put stallions in close proximity. John Henry just looked so little beside Forego.
I went up there quite a bit, and when he got into the Hall of Champions, he really became quite a part of my life and I got to know the staff and started going out to see him more.
Of course we didn’t get to race him, but it was an honor to have bred a horse like that and to say "I put this together." We made so many friends just by his reputation, and all the good racing he did. At the Horse Park so many people told me "If it weren’t for John Henry, we wouldn’t have known and met so many friends." He really brought people together.
He was determined that he was going to stay alive, but I was really shocked when I saw him. He had just lost so much weight in that period of time. He had really gone downhill. They called me and told me they had made the decision to put him down, and of course it was hard to listen to that. But these times come. He lived a long time and he was a fighter.
Alex Waldrop, CEO and president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association
John Henry was one of the most gallant and accomplished Thoroughbreds of all time.He was a modern day Seabiscuit, having begun his career at the low, claiming levels of racing and later ascending to the highest ranks of the sport. In eight years of racing, he won 30 stakes, nearly $6.6 million and two Horse of the Year awards, the last coming at the unprecedented age of nine. John Henry was campaigned masterfully throughout most of his career by his owners, Dotsam Stable, and trainer Ron McAnally. We also salute everyone at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, where this remarkable gelding has lived happily and delighted countless thousands of visitors since 1985.

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