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 Iconic champion John Henry euthanized at Horse Park

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PostSubject: Iconic champion John Henry euthanized at Horse Park   Wed Oct 10, 2007 12:22 am

conic champion John Henry euthanized at Horse Park

By Maryjean Wall

mwall@herald-leader.com

Joseph Rey Au

Two-time Horse of the Year John Henry celebrated his 32nd birthday in March. 2007 file photo by Joseph Rey Au



Maryjean Wall's blog: John Henry, RIP

Sign a guestbook for John Henry

The steel-drivin’ race horse who became a $6.6 million winner and an
icon in retirement for the Kentucky Horse Park has died at age 32.

John Henry was euthanized at about 7:05
p.m. Monday, according to Horse Park Executive Director John Nicholson.
The aged gelding had not been getting along well since the heat wave in
early August, when he began suffering kidney problems.

“There was a real difference in his
demeanor and his sparkle, between Friday and Sunday,” Nicholson said.
“He seemed to be going in a downward cycle again.”

The gelding had been receiving intravenous
fluids periodically to treat dehydration. He had lost a considerable
amount of weight.

The decision was debated and discussed Sunday, Nicholson said.

“I think we’re going to hear a lot in the
days ahead how he’s going to live on in memory,” Nicholson said. “We’re
going to continue to celebrate his birthday every year.

“There will be other great horses at the park, but not horses that will touch people’s lives like this one did.”

Nicholson said “the manner of his going was
very touching. Everybody had a chance to say goodbye. It was a
dignified and fitting end.”

Nicholson said that one of John Henry’s
jockeys, Chris McCarron, was with him Monday afternoon for a long time,
but he did not want to be there when the veterinarian came.

“There were lots of tears, a lot of
laughter, a lot of hugs, very tender goodbyes with John,” Nicholson
said. “He went very peacefully.”

He will be buried at the front of the Hall
of Champions, where he has lived since the mid-1980s. The Horse Park
has not said whether there will be a memorial service.

With John Henry’s death has passed an era
in thoroughbred racing that probably never will be duplicated. John
Henry was the final survivor of a triumvirate of renowned geldings —
Kelso and Forego were the others — who ruled the tracks from the 1960s
through the 1980s.

These three geldings made their careers
under conditions that no longer are imposed on race horses. They
carried high weight assignments, sometimes more than 130 pounds, while
also setting track records.

All three were so durable that they
returned year after year to successfully race against horses a fraction
of their ages. John Henry surpassed the others in this, becoming one of
only two horses ever to win a major stakes at the advanced age of 9.

Kelso, five times Horse of the Year, was
the first of this amazing trio. He was a formidable competitor during
the early 1960s and is consistently rated in the top five on lists of
the greatest horses of all time, behind such horses as Man o’ War,
Secretariat, and Citation.

Then came Forego, three times Horse of the
Year during the 1970s. Forego once carried 137 pounds while spotting 18
pounds to the younger Honest Pleasure and 28 pounds to some others when
winning the 1976 Marlboro Cup.

He was retired in 1978 and eventually moved to the Kentucky Horse Park, where he died in 1997.

John Henry dominated the early 1980s. His
durability was such that he seemed like he would race forever. Racing
fans loved him for this.

“You could go to bed in 1982 and wake up
sometime in 1983 knowing that John Henry would still be out there
getting ready for another race,” wrote racing reporter Jay Hovdey in
The Horsemen’s Journal in 1985. “He was Joe Louis, the Yankees, the
Packers, the Celtics, a golden hook upon which to hang the national
pride.”

John Henry was more than that. He was a
storybook race horse who “came up from the ghetto,” as trainer Ron
McAnally was fond of saying. McAnally was the final of several trainers
John Henry had through eight years of racing and the trainer who
campaigned him through his greatest victories.

The gelding’s story began on Golden Chance
Farm near Paris, as an offspring of nondescr1pt parents whose names
were Ole Bob Bowers and Once Double. John Henry was born with
structural defects that set his knees too far back on the joints. No
horseman would have taken a serious look at him in a horse sale, for
this “back at the knees” condition could possibly have predisposed him
to breaking down on the track.

But someone did buy the colt, paying $1,100
for him. This was John Callaway of Louisville, who once recalled his
first sight of John Henry when the young horse walked into the
Keeneland sales ring. John had banged his head in his stall and “looked
like a drowned rat with blood running off his forehead,” Callaway told
Sports Illustrated.

Callaway gave the colt his name, John
Henry, explaining later that he liked to name horses for songs. But he
did not keep him long, for John’s “back at the knees” condition seemed
like it was getting worse.

Callaway entered him in a sale at Keeneland
in 1977, with Harold Snowden Jr. of Lexington buying him for $2,200.
“When I sold him it was 10 degrees below zero and there was nobody
there and it was the last of the sale,” Callaway said in an interview
during the 1980s.

“No one dreamed he’d have ability,” Callaway added. “I laugh. But I want to cry.”

John Henry was castrated on account of his
ill-temper and went through a succession of stables before a New Yorker
named Sam Rubin acquired him for $25,000. With Rubin, the gelding’s
fortunes turned.

Rubin eventually placed John Henry with New
York trainer V. J. “Lefty” Nickerson, and the gelding began to climb
the ladder of success. But it was upon reaching the barn of McAnally,
in California, that John Henry finally “found his groove.”

He blossomed on California’s turf courses
and came to dominate American grass racing. A variety of jockeys rode
John Henry, including Laffit Pincay Jr. and Bill Shoemaker. But some of
greatest victories occurred after pairing him with Chris McCarron in
1983.

He became the first horse to win $3 million, then $5 million, then $6.5 million.

He was Horse of the Year in 1981 and 1984,
champion older horse in 1981, champion male grass horse in 1980, 1981,
1983, and 1984 and a winner of 30 stakes including the Turf Classic,
the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and the Budweiser-Arlington Million twice.

When John Henry was retired — the first
time — in July 1985, he was the all-time leading money winner with $6.6
million. Rubin, his owner, retired him to Kentucky Horse Park where the
gelding lived for the next seven months.

Then, in a decision that surprised the
racing world, Rubin elected to return John Henry to the track in 1986.
He never raced again, however, and remained permanently at the Horse
Park upon returning there that year.

The acquisition of John Henry was seen as a
major coup at the time for the Horse Park. California race tracks
wanted to house the gelding in his retirement and Rubin, his owner, had
also thought he might retire him in the East.

But former Keeneland President Ted Bassett
persuaded McAnally to intercede with Rubin, and McAnally “was
responsible for getting him to the park,” Bassett once said.

John Henry’s retirement to the park became
the catalyst for collecting the group of horses that became the first
permanent residents at the Hall of Champions.

McAnally regularly visited the gelding when
in Lexington for the races or horse sales. So did McCarron, his jockey.
In recent years the Horse Park began holding annual birthday parties
for John Henry. The last party, to mark his 32nd birthday in March,
drew about 150 people, many of them from different parts of the
country.
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