LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Grumpy yet beloved, thoroughbred great
John Henry died Monday after 32 years of defying odds -- both in
racing success and longevity.
The two-time Horse of the Year, who earned more than $6.5
million before retiring as a gelding to the Kentucky Horse Park
where he became an icon, was euthanized Monday night in his paddock
at the park.
He had survived several illnesses over the years but never
recovered from a recent bout with dehydration, in which he
experienced kidney failure that forced him to receive intravenous
fluids. The horse was rapidly losing weight.
"John's always been known for his biting and kicking," said
Cathy Roby, barn manager at the horse park's Hall of Champions
where he was stabled. "He had gotten to the point where he really
wasn't trying, where he just wasn't John anymore. He was just tired
and he was ready to go."
Mike Beyer, the veterinarian who tended to John Henry until the
end, said euthanasia was the only choice.
"We didn't want to get to the point where he didn't have
dignity," Beyer said.
John Henry was retired 22 years ago to the park, where he was
beloved by the public and, along with stablemate Cigar, one of the
park's biggest attractions.
Foaled March 9, 1975, and an average runner early in his career,
John Henry was the highest money-earning thoroughbred in history
when he retired in 1985.
The gelded son of Old Bob Bowers out of Once Double won four
Grade I races and Horse of the Year honors at age 6 and 9 and
collected seven Eclipse awards from 1980 through 1984.
"Everywhere he raced, 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," Chris McCarron, who rode John Henry in 14
of his last races, said in a statement from the park.
Although he never won a Triple Crown race, he was successful at
the highest levels of competition on the dirt and the turf.
John Nicholson, park executive director, said the horse's value
was far more than the sum of his pedigree. Schoolchildren who would
visit the park often found inspiration from his story, Nicholson
In his career, John Henry earned 39 victories, 15 seconds and
nine thirds in 83 starts and earned $6,597,947. He was inducted
into thoroughbred racing's Hall of Fame in 1990.
Foaled at Golden Chance Farms in Kentucky in 1975, John Henry
was called "small," "ugly" and "bad-tempered" as a foal. He
was sold at the January mixed sale at Keeneland for $1,100.
He soon became known more for his disposition than his racing
ability, often tearing buckets and tubs of the wall of his stall
and stomping them flat.
He was sold to Harold Snowden of Lexington for $2,200 in 1977.
Snowden chose to geld John Henry with the hope it would calm him
and allow him to focus on racing.
He changed hands two more times until native New Yorker Sam
Rubin and his wife, Dorothy, bought him for $25,000 sight unseen
over the phone. John Henry's new trainer, Bob Donato, thought the
horse would fare well on grass, and John Henry won six of 19 starts
as a 3-year-old.
As a 4-year-old, John Henry won four of 11 races for trainer
Lefty Nickerson. The following year, John Henry was sent to work
with trainer Ron McAnally in California and his career blossomed.
McAnally trained John Henry with "carrots, apples and love,"
the horse park said. He visited during the horse's retirement and
had seen him as recently as September, bringing the animal's
favorite cookies and carrots, the park said. Lewis Cenicola, John
Henry's exercise rider for six years, also visited the horse in
September, the park said.
He won six stakes races in a row as a 5-year-old, including four
Grade I races -- the San Luis Rey Stakes, the San Juan Capistrano
Invitational, the Hollywood Invitational and the Oak Tree
That year also saw him claim his first of seven Eclipse awards
as the nation's champion turf horse. He finished the 1980 campaign
with eight victories and three seconds in 12 starts.
John Henry's remarkable run continued for the next four years as
he won 18 of 30 starts. In 1981, he won eight of 10 starts and was
named champion grass horse, champion older horse and horse of the
As a 9-year-old, John Henry won four straight stakes races,
claimed $2.3 million in earnings and again was named champion grass
horse and horse of the year.
He won what proved to be his last race, the Ballantine's Scotch
Classic at the Meadowlands on Oct. 13, 1984. John Henry was
scheduled to run in the inaugural Breeders' Cup Turf Classic that
year, but a strained suspensory ligament kept him on the sidelines.
Rubin planned to race John Henry as a 10-year-old but changed
his mind in July 1985, after the horse injured a leg during
"If he'd have broken down on the race track, I couldn't have
lived with it," Rubin said at the time.
Tom Levinson, Rubin's stepson, said in the statement that his
mother and Rubin "loved sharing John's victories with his adoring
fans and we appreciate their devotion even to this sad day. ... We
are sure that if Sam Rubin were here today, he and my mother
Dorothy would agree that their wish would be for John Henry to be
remembered as the mighty, cantankerous champion we all loved."