John Henry — The Most Noble Of Beasts

By Michael-Louis Ingram
Updated: October 9, 2007

PHILADELPHIA — With days to go before a revamped and revitalized Breeders’ Cup, the racing world was saddened by the passing of superstar thoroughbred John Henry.

After deliberation over compromised kidney function and proper hydration, the great gelding was euthanized Tuesday evening at the Kentucky Horse Park, his home for the past 22 years.

Foaled in the spring of 1975 at Golden Chance Stables in Paris, Kentucky, John Henry survived a spotty start and colic to become one of thoroughbred racing’s most durable and endearing personalities.

After bouncing around several trainers, John Henry would eventually thrive under Ron McInally, whose quoted formula for success consisted of “carrots, apples and love.”

John Henry was a seven time Eclipse Award winner. “He was old-school, the way he ran,” says Donald Carew, a longtime racing fan from Queens, N.Y. “He ran on every surface; good on dirt, even better on turf.”

“And he kept running, not like recent champions that stud at three or four.”

The powerful gelding would run competitively before retiring to Kentucky Horse Park, earning $6.5 million in purses for owner Sam Rubin.

Voted Horse of the Decade for the 1980s, John Henry is the only horse to ever win Horse of the Year awards in non-consecutive years, winning his second award — at age nine.

In 1990, John Henry was unanimously voted into the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame.

“But he had star power, too,” exclaims Carew. “People flocked to see him like they did Secretariat. If racing can take anything from what has recently happened with great horses like John Henry, it is that owners take the chance and let the horses run as long as they are sound and have the desire to run.”

“John Henry seemed to have the biggest heart. He was just one of those horses that did not want to be beaten,” Carew said.

John Henry’s star power was in full effect as his effort and presence helped to establish races like the Arlington Million as staples in the thoroughbred stakes calendar.

Out of 82 races over his career, John Henry would run in the money 63 times, with 39 wins. Of those, 30 stakes wins, among them 16 Grade I victories, including tying the track record at 1.5 miles at Santa Anita (2:23).

In his illustrious career, John Henry was also piloted by the best jockeys in the sport; Darrell McHargue and Hall of Fame jockeys Angel Cordero, Jr., Laffit Pincay, Willie Shoemaker, and Chris McCarron.

McCarron was on board for the last 14 races, and had spent many hours with the horse during his 22 years at Kentucky Horse Park.

In a prepared statement regarding the great horse’s passing, he observed, “What can I say about the legendary John Henry that has not already been said? John meant the world to my family and me.”

“Everywhere he ran his presence doubled the size of a normal race track crowd. He did so much for racing, even after he retired, that he will be impossible to replace. He will be sorely missed but forever in our hearts.”

Lisa Jackson, Director of Marketing and Public Relations for the park, says a public memorial service will be held and will be announced by the park upon completion of the arrangements. “Plans for the service will be posted on our website ( in our Calendar of Events.”.

“John Henry will then be buried near his paddock at the Hall of Champions, along with other thoroughbred champions.” When asked which ones, Jackson revealed a Who’s Who of equine elite: ” Man o’ War, War Admiral, Forego, Bold Forbes, Allez France, Peteski and Jay Trump.”

A new documentary, “John Henry: An American Hero,” is expected to be completed by the end of the year, with the release date to be announced .

Like the mythical character that was his namesake, John Henry was hard-charging and driven with an iron will. He took on all comers and was a savior of the two-dollar bettor.

Now this most noble of noble beasts can enjoy his carrots and apples as he takes the love of racing fans worldwide into the great beyond.