Much like it is hard to discuss the Belmont Stakes without referencing Secretariat, it is almost impossible to talk about the Arlington Million without uttering John Henry's name. This weekend Arlington Park will hold the signature race for the 31st time, and it is sure to be a thrilling event. But for as long as they run that race, John Henry is the barometer against which all other equines will be judged.
Even three decades removed from the event, John Henry's victory over The Bart in the inaugural Million remains one of the most historic races in American history. Part of that is because it was the first $1 million thoroughbred race this country ever held, but a good chunk of it is because John Henry was John Henry. Three years later, he won the race again, and to this day remains the only official two-time winner.
Even three decades removed from the event, John Henry's victory over The Bart in the inaugural Million remains one of the most historic races in American history.
My memories of John Henry don't trace back that far. He and I didn't cross paths until a bit more than a decade ago. I was a journalism major at the University of Kentucky at the time, and I heard the Kentucky Horse Park was throwing a birthday party for the legend, as they did every year. I figured in my nerdy way that it would be fun to go, so I did.
It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
During that birthday party I decided to sign up to be a volunteer for the KHP, specifically in the Hall of Champions, which was home to John Henry and Cigar, among others. Over the next five years or so, I spent thousands of hours in that barn as both a volunteer and an employee.
This is the part of the story where I would like to tell you John Henry was kind and sweet and loved me. However, that couldn't be further from the truth. Along with his unbelievable talent, the gelding was known for being mean. It was a deserved reputation.
John, for being as mean as he was, was actually easy to work with in many ways. He was an incredibly intelligent and proud horse, and he knew what his job was. He rarely misbehaved when he was doing his job. It was when you tried to bother him on his time that you ran into trouble. He had no interest in extra cuddles. He didn't want attention. He wanted to be left alone.
You might think that being shown off three times a day would be torture for a horse who liked his alone time, but you would be wrong. It's tricky to explain but while John had no interest in loving you, he wanted you to love him.
Many days, instead of staying out of direct eyesight, he would back his rump up against his stall door. Perhaps it was to show the world the view his competition got, perhaps it was because he liked to dare park visitors to stick their fingers in for a quick scratch even though a brass sign attached to the door clearly requested people do no such thing.
Even more entertaining was the rivalry he had with Cigar, who was stabled directly across the aisle. Neither liked the other one getting too much attention. Cigar, who loves his adoring public as much as they love him, was so put out when we were hosting John's 30th birthday party, no amount of sweet talk or sweet feed could get him to stop pouting in the corner.
It didn't take a special event for this rivalry to come to the surface, though. If a large crowd gathered in front of Cigar's stall, it wasn't uncommon for John to amble up to his own stall door and start kicking it. The crowd would hear the noise and cross the aisle to go visit with him. Cigar would then nicker to lure them back. For minutes on end, the crowd would walk back and forth to whichever champion was showing off the most.
From time to time we would let fans have pictures taken with John. Whether we could or not largely depended on John's mood that day. Some people never saw the cranky side of John, so they didn't believe it was there. Others would reassure me that being bitten by John would be an honor. Those are the people who I know have never been bitten by a horse. It is not pleasant.
John never liked me but the fact he tolerated me actually was an honor. I believe the only human he ever loved was trainer Ron McAnally. Even decades after he left the race track, John still remembered the man who found a way to channel his talent. Whenever he came to visit, John perked up and it wasn't just because of the treats Mr. McAnally always brought with him. He was his human, and that was that.
Time marched on and eventually my time spent in the Hall of Champions barn dwindled down to a trickle. I had graduated college, taken a full-time job as a staff writer for one of the weekly horse racing trade magazines and life was hectic. However, once it was clear that John was starting to slow down, I made a point to go out and visit as often as I could.
In the twilight of his life, Hall of Champions employees started taking John for walks around the park. It was good for him both physically and mentally. Whenever possible, I would slip his lead shank on and take him for a stroll. He was an aging monarch surveying his kingdom for what could be the last time, and I was a 20-something trying to find my way. We probably made a funny pair.
During our walks, I would tell John about what was going on. Apologize for not getting out as often as I should. Explain how life and work and boys and the general chaos of being a 20-something kept me away. I knew he didn't care, but I did.
As we wound our way back up the hill that leads to the Hall of Champions barn, I was always well aware that might be the final time I saw the great horse. The last thing I would do as we made our way back to his stall was try to give John a hug and thank him. It might sound weird to thank a horse, and it probably is, but John Henry taught me -- and everyone who had the good fortune to work him -- a great deal.
John, true to his nature, tried to bite me every single time.
But John was 32, which is quite old for a thoroughbred, and even though we all joked he was too mean to die, we knew that this was one race even the mighty John Henry couldn't win. One day, the phone call came to let me know I needed to come say goodbye for real.
When I went in his stall, John came up to me, put his head against my chest and sighed a bone-weary sigh. In that singular moment, I would have given everything I had for him to try to bite me instead.
A week or so after his death, a memorial service was held for John in front of his paddock. It is humbling going to a service for a horse that was better attended than your own funeral probably will be. But John was John and he touched countless lives over the course of his. My own father drove six hours to be there that day.
I think people loved John so much because he was never supposed to be great. He was never supposed to be a legend. He was small and mean and more resembled a mule than a mighty thoroughbred. His owner was small time and his pedigree was laughable. But none of that mattered. On the track, he was simply the best. It is the equine version of the American Dream.
It is hard to believe it has been more than 10 years since I went out to attend a birthday party for a horse. Since then, because of my job, I have been fortunate enough to see and meet some of the world's best race horses on three different continents. But it's a picture from that day -- mixed in with photos from graduations, my brother's wedding and other major life events -- that is still on my parents' fireplace mantle. (For the record, I look cold and John looks grumpy.)
John never loved his adoring public, but he loved being adored by them. It is only right then that on Saturday, his name will be mentioned time and time again. After all, the Arlington Million is, and forever will be, his.
Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Among her other duties, she is an editor for Gallop Magazine. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.