Monday, December 3, 2007
Of all the horses I ever wrote about, John Henry was the most memorable. John was a lot more than a champion. Even people who know very little about thoroughbred horse racing know the name John Henry. Like Seabiscuit, he was a people's horse. Like Seabiscuit, he wasn't much to look at, but he achieved immortality. John was just as ornery and unpredictable a any horse can be, but he had a presence that few people, let alone horses have. When John Henry died last month, at 32, there were fewer tears than memories. He lived a full life for a gelding and still entertained his adoring public at the Kentucky Horse Park until the end. Back in 1987 while covering stakes races for The Blood-Horse magazine, I had my 15 minutes with John Henry. In the days before the Golden Gate Handicap that year, I used my press credentials to visit John in his stall. He'd been reclusive that day because people were coming by on stable tours and media photo ops all week. But when everyone left, and I quietly talked to him, John came over and let me take a few photos. I know it's presumptuous to assume he did this for me. But that's how it went down. That's how John Henry operated. Ask anyone ever connected to him from owner, trainer, exercise rider, or groom. He was that kind of personality. Of course he went on to win that race and set a course record in the process. I recall how he'd walk out on the track for his workouts before the race and just stop and take in his surroundings. He had Gatsby's Platonic concept of the self. He enjoyed everything about the racing game and if any horse dared think he could pass John in the lane, he had a struggle coming. Given the current state of affairs where many promising horses are retired after their 3 year-old season, we'll never see another John Henry.