What a little racehorse taught me about life

(John Henry showed me that it’s all about how you run your race, not necessarily “winning.” – promoted by jillian)

I read the news today, oh my. And, for a follower of the “ponies”, it is a sad day indeed. The legendary racehorse, John Henry has passed. Gone to the big race in the sky to battle down the homestretch with the other greats of the sport. And, I am heartbroken, indeed. For John Henry, although giving me great thrills at his exploits at the track, also taught me a great deal about life.


John wasn’t from the true “blue” blooded side of the track. His sire, Ole Bob Bowers was once sold for $900. John himself wasn’t purchased for millions at the well-heeled sales at Saratoga. He barely brought in $1,100 at the Keeneland sales, after bashing himself in the head in the stall and arriving into the sales ring bloody.

He “suffered” the indignity of being gelded because he had his own mind…and mean temper. He also was undersized. Underweight. Underbred with unremarkable conformation.

He raced early on. He was a “workhorse” and managed to bring in some money and some attention. He was finally purchased by Dotsam Stable, the stable of Dorothy (Dot) and Sam Rubin. They shipped him out to California to the stable of Ron McAnally.

And…in the California sun and the glare of the racing public….John Henry blossomed. He started winning. Big. And the racing “elite” took notice. The fans turned up in droves to see “the little horse” that could. He captured the nation’s imagination.

He certainly captured mine.

I would ride the Greyhound bus from Santa Barbara down to the tracks in the Los Angeles area, camera in tow and Racing Form in hand. And watching John in action truly was breath taking. Coming from the “nose bleed” section of the pack to win by a whisker he would give us thrills and excitement, and, yes, disappointment. He didn’t win them all, but you knew he gave it his all. And we all loved him for it.

He was a ham. He truly loved the fans..almost as much as we loved him. I would squeeze up to the paddock rail to see the little guy. He would look around the ring, and, I kid you not, spot the cameras. As he was being walked around the ring, he would stop infront of someone who had a camera and “pose” until he heard that shutter click. I have a couple of great photos of him “smiling” at me.

So, what did he “teach” me, you ask…well…

John showed everyone that one can truly go from “rags to riches.” It didn’t matter if you weren’t from the good side of the tracks or bloodlines, you could still have the talent to prove yourself an individual.

John showed that you could turn your anger and “meanness” to do good, and be productive. He was cantakerous, often ill-tempered, even after being gelded. That was just who he was…and he turned that “meanness” into a productive end result. Dogged determination.

John showed that winning wasn’t the only thing….it was HOW YOU RAN YOUR RACE. It was the effort that mattered. Sure, winning was a great thing, but it wasn’t the ONLY thing. Showing heart. Giving the task at hand your best effort. THAT was the important thing.

John showed that intelligence was part of any game, too. Chris McCarron often said that John knew when to move in the race, all by himself. He (Chris) was just along for the ride.

John also showed that knowing yourself was a key component to a “winning” life. He would walk carefully to morning workouts, making sure he didn’t stumble on rocks or collide with other horses more “high strung.” He knew that taking his time to the track was his “modus operendi”. His “peeps” understood that too. John trained them well.

John was the “working man’s” horse. He earned his place of greatness in the sport, and in our hearts, through toughness, tenacity and hard work rather than sheer brilliance. He taught us that life involved hard work, and having to work was nothing to be embarassed about. It was to be celebrated.

His final race record stood at 83 starts, 39 wins, 15 seconds, and 9 thirds with $6,497,947 in earnings.

  * Voted 7 Eclipse Awards
  * Voted Horse of the Year 1981 and 1984
  * Won Horse of the Year more than once, but not in consecutive years
  * Voted Eclipse Award for Outstanding Older Male Horse 1981
  * Oldest horse to win Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year – at age 9
  * Oldest horse to win a Grade 1 race – at age 9 (tied)
  * Voted Eclipse Award for Outstanding Male Turf Horse – 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984
  * Won 30 stakes races
  * Only horse to win the Arlington Million (G1) twice – 1981 & 1984
  * One of only two horses to win the Santa Anita Handicap (G1) twice – 1981 & 1982
  * Won more grade stakes than any other Thoroughbred – 25
  * Voted racehorse of the decade for the 1980’s
  * Still the richest gelding of any breed in history
  * Retired as the world’s richest thoroughbred – July 28, 1985
  * Inducted into National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1990
  * Ranked #23 in the Blood-Horse magazine List of the Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century

It wasn’t the awards and the acclaim that were bestowed upon him that made him so legendary, it was his dogged tirelessness and his “never give up” despite the odds attitude. It was the lessons that he taught this little railbird girl, and his millions of other fans around the world, that will never be forgotten. It was the hope that he gave us, all of us “non-blue bloods”, that someday, we, too, could show class and greatness.

And, one of the most controversial, but most exciting of John Henry’s racing days….the Santa Anita Handicap of 1982. I was there. Screaming my throat and lungs raw…cheering him on…jumping up and down along the rail along with the thousands of others….rooting on the “little horse that could.”

John Henry, the “Steel Driving” horse with a “cinderella” story.

God speed.


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  1. I saw him let up in the stretch and almost lose a race so he could bite the jockey riding the horse next to him. His races were rarely dull. They talk about his humble parents, well yes and no, his parents were the neer do well children and grandchildren of some damned fine horses, kind of like Kelso. John Henry had to be over 30, a lot of race horses never make it to 25. The ones who make it to the ripe old age of 30 or more are very rare. But then he was rare in every way. We will honor him tonight with our favorite John Henry memories, what a horse he was.

  2. And this great diary shows your class. Thank you for this fine story.

  3. who was a bit of a handicapper himself. Bed ridden since 2002, he still follows the action in the sports page but no longer can use the computer to crunch those numbers.

    Somewhere in storage is a beautiful picture of John Henry that hung in his office. I may be digging through there by this afternoon for him after he reads this.

    This is a beautiful tribute jillian.

  4. who don’t get along down the track in time?

    The ones who are shuffled off to the killing floors?

    The ones who are injured and then just as casually slaughtered?

    The few who land in rescues – where the even fewer responsible people pay and pay and pay in blood, sweat, tears and lots of $$ to give them decent homes, once in awhile a new career as a show horse in dressage or hunter/jumpers, and even more rarely, a life of grass pasture retirement?

    Don’t glamorize what you do and what they do.  Ever.

  5. My dad worked for the people that owned him, did some decorating jobs.  I got to meet them and they gave me a bunch of cool stuff, like a book about him and some of his old racing stuff, which was amazing for a horse loving kid like me.  He was a great one, doing more at 9 than many accomplish at 3.

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