John Henry's character says "handle with care." Because he inherited his father's volatile personality, gelding at an early age probably saved him from seriously injuring anyone, but his talents have obviously made his temperament easier to tolerate, else why would McAnally and crew have kept him around for so long? He is moody, destructive, irritable, cocky, and demands life on his own terms.That's from the book Patterns of Greatness II, and I hope neither of the co-authors, Alan Porter nor Anne Peters, mind. I'd love to provide a link to a site where you could buy it, but I could only find it on Ebay for $275.
You know that we generally only talk of the nice things about people after they die. But John Henry was a horse. And besides, you can read all the sentimental stuff here or here or here or....
I have particular memories of two instances in which I saw John Henry in person, though I only actually remembered that he ran in one of them before I looked it up. Spectacular Bid was to be the heavy favorite for the 1980 Jockey Club Gold Cup, and his late withdrawal from the race and subsequent retirement was the big story of the day. The other was that I had the winner, Temperance Hill. I can't say that I recalled that John Henry was the 7-10 favorite by default, nor that he was the distant runner-up until reading it just before.
But the other instance is one which I have quite a clear picture in my mind. (And excuse me if I told it in a post some 2 1/2 year ago, and recently in the comment section on Not to the Swift.) It was the final race of his nine-year old campaign in 1984. It was the Ballantine Scotch Classic at the Meadowlands, and they gave out green and yellow tote bags to a crowd of over 37,000 who didn't suspect they were seeing his final race.
I went down to the apron to check out John Henry, and was amazed at what I saw. I guess it was that cockiness described above, because he was like, "CHECK ME OUT, BABY! I'M THE MAN!! I'M JOHN HENRY, DAMMIT, LOOK AT ME!" Never before or since have I seen a horse who seemed so totally aware of where he was, and what he was there to do. Of course, I also remember the race, how it seemed he didn't have it that night until he decided it was time, swung out on the turn and rocketed past the four in front of him. But it's the memory of John Henry, the self-assured, arrogant, cocky, larger-than-life character I saw during the post parade that has always been most vivid in my memory.
That final year, he won the Arlington Million, the Turf Classic, and the Hollywood Invitational, all Grade 1's. He won Horse of the Year honors (without running in the first Breeders' Cup), becoming the oldest horse ever to do so. So who cares if he was a bit abrasive? Rest in peace, you ornery old bastard.
This is John Henry's last race, with the great Dave Johnson at the mike.