Thursday, March 26, 2009

People's Horse

His name was John Henry. Yup, the same as the famous American folk-hero, the steel drivin' man. Both became folk-heroes. For a good while John Henry, the horse, held the record for most purse money won. But inflation being what it is, that record was bound to fall. It's possible for a 3-year-old colt to earn what John made these days given a couple of Triple Crown victories and perhaps a good showing in the Breeder's Cup Classic.
But John was never about the money. By the way, it's OK to call him John, that's what his trainer, Ron MacAnally, and exercise rider Lewis Cenicola and the Rubins, his owners all called him. To say that John Henry had personality is to suggest that the economy could be better. He'd come out on the track before a workout and stop every now and again, look over his surroundings, listen, make sure everyone equine and human alike were impressed and then go about his business. All he did was win races. Sometimes in the last possible second. John knew many of the great ones. Shoemaker and McCarron were among his favorites. Hall of Famers are a close-knit group.
One week-day afternoon, just about 25 years ago, I got these pictures of John Henry. He was spending a quiet afternoon a few days before his win in the Golden Gate Handicap, and decided to be social. All the press and his curious admirers were all gone for the day. The backstretch was quiet. I thought I'd tempt fate and this time I won. John was a gentleman and very gracious to me. We spoke a while and then I decide not to wear out my welcome.
Like Seabiscuit, John Henry was a "people's horse." Everybody loved him, his humble beginnings, his huge heart, and his massive talent. We really need another folk-hero right now. We can't go back, just admire horses like John and hope we have the good fortune to see another one in the same league. All the ingredients are there, the need, the climate, the fear. As we go into the upcoming major Kentucky Derby preps most folks will be thinking about a Triple Crown winner. I'll be thinking about John Henry.

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