John Henry (horse)

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John Henry
John Henry 02.jpg
John Henry at the Kentucky Horse Park in 2006
Sire Ole Bob Bowers
Grandsire Prince Blessed
Dam Once Double
Damsire Double Jay
Sex Gelding
Foaled March 9, 1975[1]
Country United States
Colour Brown
Breeder Golden Chance Farm
Owner Dotsam Stable. Colors: Brown, powder blue hoop and bar on sleeves, brown and blue cap.
Trainer Robert Donato
Lefty Nickerson
Ron McAnally
Record 83: 39-15-9
Earnings $6,591,860
Major wins
Hialeah Turf Cup Handicap (1980)
San Gabriel Handicap (1980)
Oak Tree Turf Championship
(1980, 1981, 1982)
Hollywood Invitational Handicap
(1980, 1981, 1984)
San Luis Rey Handicap (1980, 1981)
Santa Anita Handicap (1981, 1982)
Arlington Million (1981, 1984)
Jockey Club Gold Cup (1981)
Turf Classic Invitational (1984)
Sunset Handicap (1984)
U.S. Champion Older Male Horse (1981)
U.S. Champion Turf Horse
(1980, 1981, 1983, 1984)
United States Horse of the Year
(1981, 1984)
U.S. Racing Hall of Fame (1990)
#23 - Top 100 U.S. Racehorses of the 20th Century
Statue at Arlington Park
Statue at Santa Anita Park
Last updated on September 17, 2006

John Henry (March 9, 1975 – October 8, 2007) was an American Thoroughbred race horse who had 39 wins, with $6,591,860 in earnings. This total is the equivalent to almost 15 million dollars in 2015. He was twice voted the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year in 1981 and 1984, with his 1981 selection unanimous. In all, he won seven Eclipse awards. John Henry was also listed as #23 - Top 100 U.S. Racehorses of the 20th Century.


The horse was named after the folk hero John Henry. As a colt, John Henry had a habit of tearing steel water and feed buckets off stall walls and stomping them flat. This reminded his then-owners of the legendary John Henry, who was known as a "steel-drivin' man". He was gelded both for his temperament[2] as well as his lack of good breeding, which meant that he would have been unlikely to be in much demand as a breeding stallion. A Golden Chance Farm foal, John Henry was from breeding that might best be described as plebeian. His sire, Ole Bob Bowers, once sold for just $900 and was not in much demand by breeders. His dam, Once Double, was an undistinguished runner and producer, but was sired by Double Jay, a graded stakes race winner who had proven to be a useful broodmare sire.

John Henry was sold as a yearling for $1,100 at the Keeneland January Mixed sale to John Callaway who is credited with giving John Henry his name. Besides being back at the knee (a flaw in conformation that generally makes a long racing career unlikely), undersized, and plainly bred, John Henry had bumped his head in his stall just before being led to the ring, bloodying his face.

Racing record[edit]

He had a series of trainers, making his mark as a workmanlike racehorse who earned money in minor stakes, allowance races, and mid-level claiming races. One such allowance race took place at Saratoga Race Course on August 8, 1978. The race is of note in that John Henry finished behind Darby Creek Road who won in a track record time of 1:20 2/5 for seven furlongs. Also of note was the fact that unknown to all attending that day, the race card featured two future National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame horses.

Going to California[edit]

In 1978, New York City businessman Sam Rubin and his wife Dorothy paid $25,000 sight unseen for the then three-year-old John Henry. The horse broker who picked out the horse for Rubin was Louisville trainer and broker, Mike McGee. Rubin asked McGee if he "was sure this horse was sound". McGee said he could see potential in John Henry. Racing under the Rubins' Dotsam Stable banner, he was first conditioned by trainer Robert Donato, a former policeman, who saw his grass potential. Under him, John Henry won 6 of 19 starts and $120,000, starting the year as a cheap claimer and finishing it as a stakes winner. The following year, the Rubins and Donato had a disagreement on policy and parted ways. John Henry was given to a new trainer, Lefty Nickerson. Under him, he won 4 of 11 races in 1979. When the grass season was over in New York, Rubin decided to send the horse to California. Nickerson suggested his good friend Ron McAnally as trainer. Under McAnally, John Henry won six stakes races in a row. Initially the plan was to keep him under McAnally out west and Nickerson in the east, but eventually this was scrapped and McAnally had him full-time. Because they were such good friends, Nickerson agreed to this and McAnally voluntarily gave him half of his 10% trainer's share of John Henry's earnings.

Racing through the age of nine, John Henry won the 1981 Santa Anita Handicap and repeated in 1982 after Perrault was disqualified. He is one of only three horses with back-to-back victories in the race's 72-year history. He also twice won the Arlington Million Stakes and won three renewals of both the Hollywood Invitational Handicap and the Oak Tree Invitational Stakes, two Grade I turf stakes in Southern California. He also won one of America's most important races for older horses, the 1981 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park, at 1½ miles on the dirt. This victory clinched his first Horse of the Year title.

A bronze statue called "Against All Odds," created by Edwin Bogucki, stands on a balcony overlooking the paddock at Arlington Park. It commemorates one of John Henry's most famous finishes. 1981 was the inaugural Arlington Million and two horses, John and an Irish 5 year-old named The Bart, finished side by side. Although it initially appeared that The Bart had won, John Henry was a nose ahead in the photo.

In the 1981 Oak Tree Invitational, Spence Bay went by in the stretch, but John Henry came back to win.

On December 11, 1983, John Henry became the first racehorse to surpass $4 million in career earnings when he won the Hollywood Turf Cup Stakes with jockey Chris McCarron at Hollywood Park Racetrack.

John Henry's last race was the 1984 Ballantine Scotch Classic at the Meadowlands. As he took the lead in the stretch, Meadowlands track announcer Dave Johnson exclaimed, "And down the stretch they come! The old man, John Henry, takes command!" He pulled away to his 39th career victory and his second Horse of the Year title. The final time of 2:13 equaled (at the time) the track record for 1⅜ mile.

Inaugural Breeders Cup 1984[edit]

John Henry, despite coming off a four race win streak in 1984, was not initially pointed to the inaugural running of the Breeders' Cup, the richest single day of horse racing in the world, which was to be held November 10, 1984 at Hollywood Park.

Only a relatively late decision in October was made to supplement John Henry to the 1½ mile $2 million USD Turf Cup. Because his sire was never nominated to the BC, owner Sam Rubin had to supplement 20% of the total purse. A check for $133,000 USD was due October 30, 1984 and the balance $267,000 USD to be paid the first week of November. Rubin was quoted as saying ''It's a stupid thing to do. I'm doing it for the horse, for the jockey, for the trainer. I could have done without it. I hope he comes out of the race healthy; that's what I hope.[3]

He was found to have a strained ligament in his left foreleg and was withdrawn from the race and retired.


His final race record stood at 83 starts, 39 wins, 15 seconds, and 9 thirds with $6,591,860 in earnings. He was twice voted the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year in 1981 and 1984, of which his 1981 election is notable in that it was the first in which the victor received all votes cast for that award. That feat has since been matched only by Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in 2015.[4]


John Henry's brass nameplate

It wasn't until June 21, 1985, that owner Sam Rubin made the decision to retire John Henry, age 10, when he injured a tendon during a workout at Hollywood Park on July 19, 1985. He was subsequently unretired in a comeback bid but never returned to racing and retired a second time.

Rubin sent the gelding to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington in 1985 to live. No doubt because he was a gelding, but also because he was difficult to handle. On more than one occasion, John Henry bit his owner, or anyone else within reach. The acquisition of John Henry was seen as a major coup for the park, since several tracks in California sought to host John Henry in retirement, and Rubin had thought about retiring him on the East Coast. The Kentucky Horse Park was able to win out because the former president of the Keeneland racing and sales operation in Lexington, Ted Bassett, persuaded McAnally to intercede with Rubin. John Henry's arrival at the park was the catalyst for gathering the first group of horses that would share the Hall of Champions with him.[5] Today, the Hall houses many other retired champions, such as Cigar, Da Hoss and Funny Cide.

John Henry lived at the park for only seven months before Rubin announced he would return him to training May 1, 1986. At the age of 11, he was in training for a comeback until a "recurring leg ailment" flared up in August 1986. Ron McAnally had been planning for John Henry's comeback in the Ballantine Classic at the Meadowlands September 3, 1986, (the same race John Henry won in his last outing in October 1984) and retired him a second time on August 12, 1986. He returned to the park, where he spent the rest of his life.[5]

John Henry had many quirks that endeared him to his followers, not the least of which was the habit of turning towards the tote board after a victory as if checking the time of the race, or possibly the payoff. Regular rider Chris McCarron often described him as very smart, commenting: "I'm just along for the ride." McAnally also attributed his career to his soundness, noting him to step over rocks on the way to his morning exercise. John Henry also once was determined to get to the winner's circle after losing a race, dragging his groom to get there.

John Henry, in the view of many followers of thoroughbred racing, was one of the best come-from-behind horses (or "closers") in recent history. In The Blood-Horse ranking of the top 100 U.S. thoroughbred champions of the 20th Century, he was ranked #23.

John Henry was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1990.



John Henry was euthanized at 7:05 pm EDT (2305 UTC) on October 8, 2007, at the age of 32. He had developed serious kidney problems in August 2007, while Central Kentucky was experiencing a heat wave. On October 6, he stopped responding to veterinary treatment, and the decision was made to put him down. Many who worked with him had the chance to say their goodbyes, including McCarron, who was notified of the decision to euthanize at 4:30 pm, arrived at the park at 5:30, and stayed with him until shortly before the veterinarian arrived.[5]

John Henry was buried on the night of his death in front of the Hall of Champions at a spot in front of his paddock. A memorial service was held at the park on October 19.[7]

Above the grave is a stone inscribed with the poem of "If tears could build a stairway, and memories a lane, I'd walk right up to Heaven, and bring you home again." There is also a statue of him standing. Engraved under it are the words "John Henry, A Lasting Legend."

John Henry's accomplishments[edit]

Tabulated pedigree[edit]

Pedigree of John Henry (USA), brown gelding, 1975[1]
Ole Bob Bowers
Prince Blessed
Princequillo Prince Rose
Dog Blessed Bull Dog
Blessed Again
Blue Jeans
Bull Lea Bull Dog
Rose Leaves
Blue Grass Blue Larkspur
Once Double
Double Jay
Balladier Black Toney
Blue Warbler
Broomshot Whisk Broom
Centre Shot
Intent One
Intent War Relic
Liz F.
Dusty Legs Mahmoud
  • Through his sire, John Henry was inbred 4 × 4 to Bull Dog, meaning that this stallion appears twice in the fourth generation of his pedigree.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "John Henry pedigree". 2012-05-08. Retrieved 2014-01-05. 
  2. ^ Equus Magazine once sent a psychic to "commune" with John Henry. According to the psychic, John Henry who was a fractious colt, once saw another unmanageable colt killed in a nearby stall. This taught John Henry a valuable lesson. He was supposed to have said, "We have no real choices but one path to follow—pleasing humans. The only real win we have is our own survival."
  3. ^ "John Henry to Run in Cup". New York Times. 1984-10-31. Retrieved 2014-01-05. 
  4. ^ "American Pharoah is Unanimous 2015 Horse of the Year". NTRA. January 16, 2016. Retrieved January 18, 2016. 
  5. ^ a b c Wall, Maryjean (2007-10-08). "The champion is now the legend". Lexington Herald-Leader. Archived from the original on 2007-10-14. Retrieved 2007-10-10. 
  6. ^ John Henry Memorial Fund
  7. ^ "Memorial service set for John Henry". Lexington Herald-Leader. 2007-10-09. Archived from the original on 2007-10-12. Retrieved 2007-10-10. 
  8. ^ "Thoroughbred Bloodlines - Woodbine - Family 8-c". Retrieved 2014-01-05. 

External links[edit]