Driving around South Arlington, Texas this week, longtime local sports personality Norm Hitzges brought horse racing into the discussion, as he so many times does. During his mid-morning program on the leading local sports talk station KTCK – The Ticket, Hitzges mentioned that on that day this week in 1978, John Henry was sold at the Keeneland January Mixed Sale as a yearling for $1,100 to John Calloway.
John Henry holds a special place for me as he was the first great thoroughbred I saw in person. I was at Santa Anita in 1981 when he won his second Santa Anita Handicap through the disqualification of Perrault. I had taken off a semester at the University of Arizona to become an outrider during the harness meets at Hollywood Park and Los Alamitos. On my day off, I drove to Santa Anita to witness a race that trainer Ron McAnally would later rate among his favorites as John Henry came into the Big Cap strictly off works and became the first horse to capture the historic race twice that day.
But back to the beginning.
The son of Ole Bob Bowers was undersized, back at the knee and had bumped his head leaving his stall and entered the sale ring with a bloodied face, only further confirming what the sale catalogue had scribed, that John Henry had not an even a twinge of blue in that blood of his. Calloway had purchased John Henry sight unseen but once he saw the colt and his knees, John Henry was headed again for Public Auction.
Harold Snowden paid $2,200 for John Henry as a 2-year-old, again back at Keeneland, and quickly gelded him when he exhibited a penchant for destroying steel water buckets. However, Snowden managed to make money on John Henry, eventually selling him to a South Louisiana partnership headed by trainer Phil Marino.
John Henry made his first career start at the now defunct Jefferson Downs, located on the South bank of Lake Pontchartrain in Kenner, Louisiana and reportedly walked out of the starting gate. However, he was eventually able to catch the field of maidens. He then won his first stakes in the Lafayette Futurity at Evangline Downs but a losing streak ensued and he was eventually traded – not sold – but traded back to Snowden for two promising 2-year-olds.
John Henry then managed to fall into the hands of owner Sam Rubin, a Chicago bicycle shop owner, who had purchased him privately from Snowden. Under his first year with Snowden and new trainer Bob Donato, John Henry rose from the claiming ranks to a stakes winner as John Henry began to transform as grass runner.
But John Henry still has challenges ahead as Donato fell out of favor with Rubin and Lefty Nickerson was given control in 1979. Nickerson won 4 of 11 races with John Henry but when the New York winter approached as grass racing ended, Rubin sent John Henry to McAnally on the West coast based on Nickerson’s recommendation.
John Henry began winning nearly everything in Southern California including the two Santa Handicaps in 1980 and ’81. He would win the inaugural Arlington Million over the Bart, a race finish immortalized in bronze and overlooking the Arlington Park paddock today. He won the race again in 1984 as well as three runnings of both the Hollywood Invitational Handicap and the Oak Tree Invitational Stakes. John Henry won the 1981 Jockey Club Gold Cup at 1-1/2 miles on the dirt to further show is versatility and clinched the first of two Horse of the Year titles. It was the only time the winner received all votes cast for the Horse of the Year honor. The second Horse of the Year golden statuette was presented to Rubin again in 1984 for John Henry, who had just completed his 9-year-old campaign.
In John Henry's last race, the 1984 Ballantine Scotch Classic at the Meadowlands, track announcer Dave Johnson exclaimed, " The old man, John Henry, takes command!" The final time of 2:13 equaled (at the time) the track record for 1-3/8 miles at the New Jersey track.
An injury prevented him from competing in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup at Hollywood Park and.John Henry retired as one of the most beloved horses of his generation and by far the richest with more than $6,591,860 in earnings. He would retire with additional Eclipse Awards as the Champion Turf Horse in 1980, ’81, ’83 and ’84. He was also named Champion Older Male in 1981.
The mean gelding that ate water buckets and bit his owner repeatedly, retired to Kentucky Horse Park near Lexington with 83 starts, 39 wins, 15 seconds, 9 thirds and hordes of fans who would visit him.
John Henry died at age 32 in October of 2007 at Kentucky Horse Park but his lasting impact on horse racing lives on. But unlike many champions who live on only because of their championships, John Henry continues in the hopes of the optimists and dreamers looking for that special find during the cold days of Winter Mixed Sales.