John Henry turns 32

February 22nd, 2007

The same tenacity of heart and spirit which propelled John Henry to two Horse of the Year titles and record earnings, may have something to do with his ability to keep going beyond the average life span for a horse.

According to Blood-Horse magazine’s list of the top 100 racehorses of the 20th century, the two greatest Thoroughbreds alive today are John Henry and Cigar, both of whom reside at Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. A celebration of John Henry’s life and achievements is scheduled on his 32nd birthday, March 9 at 1:00 p.m., in the Hall of Champions at Kentucky Horse Park.

Sired by Ole Bob Bowers and out of Once Double, by Double Jay, the less than fashionably bred John Henry sold for $1,100 as a yearling (his sire once sold for $900) at the Keeneland January Sale and acquired his name because of his habit of yanking feed buckets from the wall and stomping them flat (from the folk song about John Henry the steel-driving man).

He had changed hands two more times and won his first stakes race, the Lafayette Futurity at Evangiline Downs, when Samuel Rubin purchased him and sent him to trainer Bob Donato, who recognized his potential on the turf. By 1980, John Henry was on the West Coast and in the hands of Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally and regular rider Chris McCarron. He raced for the rest of his career under the silks of Dotsam Stables, owned by Samuel and Dorothy Rubin. When he retired on July 28, 1985, at 10, he was the world’s richest racehorse, with 30 stakes wins and $6.5 million.

John Henry’s hallmark on the track was his thrilling come-from-behind style. He loved to win and on one occasion, when he didn’t, he tried to drag his handler along with him to the winner’s circle. He also had the habit of turning back to look at the toteboard after a race, as if to check the order of finish and the odds.

To this day John Henry remains the world’s richest gelding. His many accomplishments include seven Eclipse Awards; two Horse of the Year Awards (1981 and 1984); a record of 25 graded stakes; and induction into Racing’s Hall of Fame in 1990. He is also the oldest horse to win an Eclipse Award and the oldest Grade I stakes winner, both accomplished at the age of 9.

“It’s interesting that in the midst of the sorrow so many of us recently experienced for Barbaro and his team, our park received phone calls and email from some of Barbaro’s grieving fans who just needed to know that John Henry was still okay,” said John Nicholson, executive director of Kentucky Horse Park. “It seemed to comfort them and ease their heartache in the wake of that tragedy to know that another deeply loved and respected racehorse was still alive and well.

“I think John Henry represents the way we all want every horse to live out its life – healthy, loved, respected, cared for, inspiring their fans and finishing well as very, very old horses,” he added. “Again this year, we ask that John Henry’s fans honor his life and achievements by making a donation to an equine rescue organization, such as the Secretariat Center here at the park. We believe it is a great way to pay tribute to a legendary racing hero, by assisting horses who are not as fortunate as John Henry.”

Kentucky Horse Park is a working horse farm, museum and equine competition facility dedicated to man’s relationship with the horse. For information on John Henry’s birthday party, which is included with park admission, call the park’s Hall of Champions at 859-259-4272.

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