It was a shock to hear John Henry had died, even though he had been in ill health and was 32 years old. Some things, like the mighty Redwoods, seem eternal, and John always was eternal in my mind. Or perhaps that feeling was more rooted in my heart. I always believed that John would not die until he was good and ready. It was apparent upon hearing the news that this was that time.
In writing about John’s retirement in his biography, I found it fitting to quote Oscar Wilde, and that quote is even more fitting now: “The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young.” The tragedy of John’s death is not that he had gotten old and feeble, but that the fire of youth still burned brightly inside him at his age.
As I wrote in his biography, “John Henry’s life is woven like some great tapestry, not only of the turf, but of the stage, where one human drama after another was played out. To those who live in the shadows of John’s past, there no longer are feelings of what might have been. They are content with the knowledge that for a brief moment in time true greatness passed their way and that perhaps they helped move it along toward its place in history.”
John’s life was a magnificently constructed script, and all who passed his way felt part of it, whether they were watching him run or visiting him at the
John Henry was not born to greatness and did not possess the physical attributes or the bloodlines to be great. He did, however, possess something much rarer: the strength of character to will himself to be great.
For me, John came alive in every page I wrote, as if allowing me entrance into his very being. That was the only way his story could be told. I became immersed not only in the story of John Henry, but in the phenomenon of John Henry. His road to greatness was unpaved and rocky. No one had ever traveled over it, nor would they ever again.
Along the way, he became the first horse to earn $3 million, the first horse to earn $4 million, the first horse to earn $5 million, and the first horse to earn $6 million. At the age of 9, when most horses are already well into their stud careers, he was winning an Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year and being named by People magazine as one of the 25 most intriguing “people” of 1984.
John might have left scars on the outside of people, but he left something much deeper and permanent on the inside. While interviewing those closest to him in his early days, I discovered an affection and reverence for the horse that overshadowed the bitterness of being mere fragments in the monument he was to build.
I closed the book by saying, “And at the Kentucky Horse Park, just miles from where he was born, the radiant spirit that is John Henry still glows after all these years. Now age twenty six, he remains, in Bob Dylan’s words, forever young.”
Even after his death, those sentiments ring as true as they did when they were first written. A statue of John is being planned at the
I know John is gone, and I know it was expected, yet it is still hard for me to believe. Despite his age, I’m sure most everyone feels the same shock as I do. That’s the way John would have wanted it.
From the time he was born, John felt compelled to fight for everything in life, whether it be with his handlers in the barn or with his opposition on the track. Was it mere coincidence that he shared the same name as the legendary blue-collar folk hero who became the subject of songs, stories, plays, and novels?
If John had words to live by, they could easily have been those taken from the opening lyrics of the song “John Henry, Steel Drivin’ Man.”
“I’ll beat you to the bottom or die.”
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