Editor's Note: In memory of John Henry, the legendary racehorse who died October 8, 2007, we present this article from the May 1985 issue of EQUUS magazine. In it, a panel of experts put the gelding to the test to discover exactly what made him a legend.
He is the Old Man of the racetrack and indisputably the best Thoroughbred around. For a number of years the only horse owned by Sam and Dorothy Rubin's Dotsam Stable, 10-year-old John Henry is a singular celebrity whose career statistics have rocketed him into a class of his own.
By a narrow margin, he was named 1984 Horse of the Year last February, just edging out Equusequity Stable's Slew o' Gold in the final tally. It was an at-the-wire victory, not unlike some of those the remarkable gelding has pulled off during the course of his career. The world's richest racehorse, with lifetime earnings totaling $6,597,947, he is also the only Thoroughbred ever to earn the Horse of the Year title twice in nonconsecutive years. He captured the first in 1981 when he was six. His lifetime record for 83 starts stands at 39 wins, 15 seconds and nine thirds. Six of those wins, one second and a third came from nine starts in 1984.
One of the most talented horses in track history, he is undoubtedly one of the most popular and enigmatic characters, too. John Henry has captured the attention of racing enthusiasts and the media at large both here and abroad.
An early-morning feature on NBC's Today show, for instance, highlighted the gelding's idiosyncratic trek to the track on race day, while People magazine included him among such notables as Chrysler's Lee Iacocca and ghostbusting comedian Bill Murray when it named him one of its 20 most intriguing people of 1984. The magazine's profile of the horse's career noted that "like Ronald Reagan, this geriatric marvel traveled the country from coast to coast [in 1984] and convincingly proved that the race is not always to the youngest."
St. George, a German horse magazine, seems to agree with this reasoning in a recent feature. Titled "John Henry: Nationalheld Und Publik-umsmagnet" (loosely translated, "national hero and magnet of public attention"), the article talks not so much about the horse's running ability but his racing sense--an intangible and unmeasurable quality that allows him to control a race.
As anyone who has worked with him or religiously watched him from the stands will tell you, the little bay horse with the average-looking body and captivating eyes has come a long way during his racing career. Though he won his first start as a two-year-old on a Louisiana track, he didn't really distinguish himself until late in his four-year-old year, developing from an average sprinter on dirt to the premier distance horse on grass. Now, surrounded by trainer Ron McAnally, assistant trainer Eduardo Inda, exercise rider Lewis Cenicola, groom Jose Mercado, jockey Chris McCarron and veterinarian Jack Robbins, VMD, the horse has mellowed in the six years that the Rubins have owned him from an unruly, some say roguish, youngster, castrated from his temperament as a two-year-old, to a mature racehorse.
Yet, while those who know him best talk of John Henry's sense of self, his disdain for hurry and hard work and his determination to stay in front of the pack, no one has ever been able to truly define the quality or combination of factors that make this superhorse tick. Sensitive handling and savvy campaigning obviously enter into the equation for success. But what other attributes account for the gelding's gradual development, dominant position and durability as a racehorse?
This was the question a curious EQUUS editorial staff brainstormed early last fall. John Henry had caught our eye, too, and we were determined to discover exactly what makes the Old Man of the racetrack run so consistently and so well. We knew that sports medicine could provide many of the answers we were after since it defines athletic effort in terms of measurable features and functions that can be assessed to establish racing superiority. Additionally, inside every winner's body there is a mind, a psyche, "heart" to match the heart. Desire is an element of winning we don't yet know how to measure in scientific terms, but there must be clues from which to estimate it, or it wouldn't be so universally acknowledged and cherished.
After John Henry's impressive victory in the Budweiser-Arlington Million in August 1984, McAnally's response to the always-asked "What allows the horse to keep running and winning against the best as a nine-year-old?" was "I guess it's something only the Almighty knows."