When John Henry was euthanized earlier this week at age 32 at the Kentucky Horse Park, the news did not stir within me memories of any one race. Rather, it was his message that I recalled. He taught us that anything is possible. That is John Henry's legacy.
He was Rocky Balboa, only real. John Henry wasn't supposed to be any good. That's why he sold for $1,100 at a yearling sale, dismissed as too small and too mean to ever make it. That's why he was dropped into a $25,000 claimer in his 14th career start. He was a club fighter, just a horse to fill out a Thursday afternoon card somewhere. He certainly didn't have the pedigree to be great. Who was Ole Bob Bowers anyway? Nor did he seem to have the talent.
But what nobody knew back then was that there was something innately extraordinary about this animal, who had a burning desire to succeed. It was as if he one day decided that he wasn't going to settle for being mediocre anymore. From that point on, he tapped into an inner strength that allowed his desire to overcome any shortcomings he might have had.
"John always had fire in his eyes as he circled his opponents in the paddock while they pranced, his eyes glazed with the determination to win," said Tom Levinson, whose stepfather, Sam Rubin, owned John Henry throughout his glory years.
By his 5-year-old year, he was among the top turf horses in the country. That's when he won his first Grade 1 race, the 1980 San Luis Rey at Santa Anita. But it wasn't grass racing that had turned him around or a new barn. He won a lot of big races on the dirt and he won not just for Ron McAnally, but for Lefty Nickerson and Bob Donato, too.
By his 6-year-old year, he was a star. That was when he won his first Arlington Million. In his next two starts, he won the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Oak Tree Invitational, wrapping up his first Horse of the Year title.
He was very good at 7 and very good at 8. A gelding, John Henry was still campaigning as a 9-year-old, when he should have been well past his prime. Then, we were seeing a new dimension to this marvelous horse. He didn't want to be mediocre and he didn't want to stop being great. Again defying the odds, not to mention age, he won the Grade 1 Hollywood Invitational in the fourth start of his 9-year-old year. Two starts later, he won his second Arlington Million. Then it was a win in the Turf Classic at Belmont.
Back then, the Meadowlands was still trying to make its presence felt in the crowded New York metropolitan marketplace and was desperate to get racing's biggest drawing card to its track. So, they put in a bonus that would guarantee John Henry and Rubin a $740,000 payday should he win.
The Meadowlands had never before and never will again pulsate with such energy. A crowd of 37,112 turned out, and they weren't left disappointed. John Henry, who did everything on his own terms by this time in his career, lagged far back early, seemingly showing no interest in the task at hand. By the top of the stretch, he decided it was time to go, and he came with a knockout punch that was too much for his rivals.
"You never give up hope with a horse of this caliber," McAnally would say after the race.
He would never race again. Injuries and age finally caught up with him and plans to race him as a 10-year-old were curtailed. He would spend the next 22 years at the Kentucky Horse Park, where he was rightly treated as a living god of the turf.
"He will be impossible to replace," retired rider Chris McCarron said upon his death.
There will be plenty of horses who impress us and thrill us. Maybe we'll even have another Triple Crown winner some day. But another John Henry? Another horse with his courage, his determination, his ability to rise from nothing to the pinnacle of the sport? Another horse who is so inspiring? Another horse who makes us realize that the inner spirit is a powerful thing? Another John Henry? No way.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.