Legend. Champion. Words thrown around too often casually. John Henry stamped himself worthy of those titles. Often described as tempermental, difficult, ornery – word of his death has brought tears to even the casual fan.
John Nicholson of the Kentucky Horse Park noted “The racing industry has lost a legend, but more significantly, many people have lost a personal hero. John Henry’s true legacy was written in people’s hearts far more indelibly than his superlative racing career could ever reflect.” Long a park favorite with visitors John set a huge standard. John Henry had a bad episode recently and when his kidneys began failing and the muscle mass meant he couldn’t be kept hydrated and comfortable, the difficulty was made to humanely euthanize him.
John Henry had an enormous career and in 2002 survived colic surgery. Before his retirement he was twice named Horse of the Year – a “people’s horse” who won 39 of 83 races with a lifetime earnings of $6,591,860. Of those wins 16 were in grade I races at the top of his game including the first Arlington Million in 1981 then again in 1984 as a 9 year old. Born March 9, 1975 he had a rather plain pedigree – by Ole Bob Bowers out of the Double Jay mare Once Double he inspired loyalty from his trainer, handlers and jockeys and respect from an industry often seen as jaded. He earned seven Eclipse Awards – aside from Horse of the Year (1981 and 1984), he was named turf male in 1980, 81, 83 and 84 and top older male in 1981. In 1990 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. His last four races in 1984 including the Turf Classic, were all graded wins. He went out on top. John Henry did not always instill such a sense of reverence. He fought for it. He gave every shred of himself in blazing an incredible record.
He was not born a million dollar baby. He didn’t drop names in his pedigree that instilled major confidence. He wasn’t really the prettiest horse to walk the track. But he had something unseen – heart. He had the heart to rise above his pedigree and make his way. He was the first horse to win $3million. He was the first horse to earn $4 million. He was the first horse to win $6 million. Long after many contemporaries retired to breeding careers he was winning Horse of the Year honors. In 1984 People magazine listed him as one of the 25 most intriguing “people” of the year. He inspired respect and people couldn’t watch him race without an appreciation of that something unseen.
“The next few days will be terribly difficult for his fans, but especially for the people here at the park who have worked with him and loved him for so long,” Nicholson said. “It was our unparalleled privilege to have John Henry here living at the Kentucky Horse Park for the past 22 years.”
A public memorial will be held for the champion at 2 pm on October 19 at the Kentucky Horse Park Hall of Champions – he will be buried near his paddock.