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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

John Henry - The Dark Side

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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the memories.fuxkzho

Anonymous said...

Alan, enjoyed your comments on John Henry. Of course, the irony of it is that gelding a horse is supposed to improve his disposition! Anyway, you would think a lot of these highrollers playing Big Stud Fee Roulette would recognize how high the odds are, start gelding some of the sound wannabes, and go for the big Grade I purses. It's no accident that the greatest race horses of my lifetime have been predominantly geldings; these are the race horses who have become household names in our lifetime save Secretariat. How many of the one hit wonders (3 YO's) ever really bring in a lot of cash as studs? These days a Kelso, Forego, John Henry, Cigar, et al could potentially rake in $15 mill plus in purses over a 6 year career on the track. Think of the fun you would have traveling the Grade I circuit with your pals picking up regular paychecks- See America First Via The Racetrack! I guess I'm about the only fan out there who doesn't obsess about winning the Derby? /S/Green Mtn Punter

Anonymous said...

We've lost a great legend, but John Henry will live on in the hearts of all who loved him, no-matter how ornery he was!
Thanks, Alan!

forego is my witness said...

I was also fortunate enought to be there at the Meadowlands to see John destroy the field at the top of the stretch. Having seen Forego so many times, I couldn't help but be impressed by the old man. Henry was one of the greats.

Just a side note regarding JH's orneriness vis a vis Forego. I visited Forego at Kentucky Horse Park a few years before he passed away. I was "warned" to be careful if he came near, as he also had a reputation for being a tough bird. Well, wouldn't you know it -- I spoke a few words to him as he came near to inspect his new visitors, and not only did I get to pat his neck, he nuzzled my hand a bit and damn if I didn't tear up a bit! I think (sorry to wire this way!) he knew not only was I not scared of him but that I respected him, and gave me a few moments of kindness. From what I've read, John Henry wasn't prone to such moments. But whenever I read about JH's orneriness and why horses are gelded, I think back to meeting my "horse hero" and smile.