America's Oldest Living Legend, John Henry, Still Full of Life at Age 28

America's Oldest Living Legend, John Henry, Still Full of Life at Age 28
Photo: Tammy Siters/Kentucky Horse Park
John Henry, in a 2002 photo at the Kentucky Horse Park.
With crowds pouring into theaters all over the country to see the movie Seabiscuit, another American legend, John Henry, continues to put on a show each day before thousands of visitors at the Kentucky Horse Park. And according to his handlers, the old boy is still as feisty and ornery as ever at age 28.

Although Seabiscuit has become synonymous with miraculous comebacks, John Henry has one of his own that ranks right up there. In January, 2002, John Henry had to undergo emergency colic surgery, and the odds of a 27-year-old horse surviving was minimal. "The anesthesiologist told us a horse that old has only a 7% chance of making it through anesthesia," said Cathy Roby, manager of the Hall of Champions, where John Henry has resided since his retirement in 1985. "The veterinarians debated for a while and finally told us we probably should put him down. But the park manager, John Nicholson, said, 'Well, we have to try. We have to do whatever we can.' If (John Henry) hadn't been who he is he most likely wouldn't be here. He went through the anesthesia and the surgery perfectly, and actually came out of the anesthesia too fast and started to jump up, which you don't want them to do, because they can rupture something. So, they had to give him another injection to knock him out a little, so that he could come out of it a little slower."

Two incidents occurred before and after John Henry's surgery that demonstrated the horse's uncanny intelligence and aggressive nature, the two attributes that made him such an extraordinary racehorse.

When Roby and assistant manager Tammy Siters brought John Henry across the road to Hagyard, Davidson and McGee verterinary clinic for his surgery, he kept trying to lay down and roll. When he went down and they were unable to get him up, a vet technician came over, opened her hand and smacked John hard across the nose. With herd animals, that gets their "fight or flight" instinct going. As sick as he was, the old boy jumped to his feet and glared at his attacker.

Roby and Siters then forewarned the vet tech. "When he starts to feel better, watch out for him," they told her. "It could take a day or it could take a month, but John will get you back."

"She didn't believe us," Roby said. "She said she's worked with horses for a long time and didn't believe a horse could hold a grudge. But whenever John feels he's been mistreated unjustly, he will remember and eventually he'll get you back. He does that with us all the time."

A week to the day after his surgery, Roby and Siters went to the clinic to visit John, and saw the vet tech. "You're not going to believe what happened," she said. She explained how she went in to check John's belly bandage, and when she bent over, he whirled around and bit her on, of all the places, her nose. A horse normally will go for your chest or your arm, but John made sure he got her in the same place she hit him. "We'll, he got a nose for a nose," Roby told the vet tech.

In another incident, the night after the surgery, Siters went to stay with John, and the horse was in some distress, standing in his stall shaking. "He put his head in my arms, was leaning up against me, and basically wanted me to hold him up," Siters said. "I told him that it wasn't his time to die, and I'd make a deal with him. If he promised to fight for me, he could bite me...once. When he started feeling better, he'd take half hearted nips at me, and I kept saying, 'John, you only get one bite, so you'd better save up and make it a good one.'"

John, against all odds, did recover, and less than three months later was back putting on his three shows a day in front of his adoring public. By then, Siters had forgotten her promise. But John hadn't. One day, Tammy took him out into the ring for his show, and out of nowhere, John reached out and grabbed her in the chest in front of all the people and wouldn't let go. "When he bites, he hangs on like a snapping turtle," Roby said. Siters, in pain and embarrassed, wondered, 'Where in the world did that come from?' Then it hit her. She remembered her promise to John, telling him he could bite her once, but he better make it a good one. "And he sure made it a good one," Siters said.

Last fall when "Seabiscuit" was being shot in Lexington, John Henry's former rider, Chris McCarron, who coordinated all the racing scenes in the film, brought the crew out to the Horse Park, along with the park's marketing people, to see his hero. It was after hours and no one was there. John was out in his paddock, and McCarron decided to go in and get him. Little did he know that John does not let anyone, not even Roby and Siters, into his paddock. "He'll actually try to kill someone if they get out in his paddock," Roby said. "He's very territorial. The way we heard the story, Chris climbed the fence, and when John saw him, he pinned back his ears, lowered his head, and opened his mouth, showing his teeth, which he does whenever he gets ferocious. He came charging at Chris, and before you knew it, Chris was literally flying over the fence."

But John can also be a master of intimidation. Several years ago, there was a seasonal worker at the Hall of Champions who was deathly afraid of John. "He knew it," Roby said, "and he would do everything in his power to intimidate her. One day, she was by herself, and went into John's stall to fill up his water bucket. As soon as she walked in the door, John chased her into the back corner of his stall, and gave her that ferocious look of his. It can really scare you to death. As long as she stood in the corner, John was fine, he'd leave her alone. He'd go over to the hay rack in the other corner and eat some hay, and not even bother her. But the minute she headed for the door, he'd come flying at her and chase her back into the corner. She was stuck there for an hour before a fella who had worked with John here in the past came with his girlfriend. The (seasonal) yelled to him, 'Please get me out of here.' He went into the tack room and got a peppermint and distracted him until she could sneak out of the stall. Afterward, she referred to John as a mean, little old man in a horse suit."

During a recent visit to the Horse Park, a visitor stood in the tack room with Roby and Siters listening to all these John Henry stories. There is an opening cut into the wall of the tack room that connects with John's stall. All the while, John had his ear pressed against the opening, as if he were listening to every word. "You know we're talking about you, don't you, John?" Siters said to the horse. John promptly nodded his head. "He's unbelievable," Siters said. "It's like he's human sometimes. We've never been around a horse like him; certainly never one as intelligent."

Last Saturday, Roby and Siters took John down the path to the Breeds Barn to get a massage. "They had a masseuse there, and John was a little off in his back end," Roby said. "He has his own chiropractor, and didn't like some strange woman in a strange place putting her hands on him. And he just had a fit. She finally gave up and said, 'We'll try again some other time.'

"Walking back up the hill, John looked fantastic and was prancing along like he was going to the racetrack. I said to Tammy, who was walking him, 'He's 28-years-old and he looks like a 2-year-old.' He's out in his paddock every morning running laps and rearing and bucking. He's something else. A week doesn't go by without something going on with John. We always say he's gonna outlive all of us. He's too ornery to die. John is only going to die when John is good and ready."

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