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The History of John Henry

Updated: 10/08/07

Sadly the old champion had to be euthanized on October 8, 2007, at the age of 32 due to the infirmities of old age. He had been in poor health for several weeks and his caretakers at the Kentucky Horse Park finally lost the battle to try and save him. Kathy Hopkins, equine director at the park, said, "After continued successful efforts to maintain the quality of John Henry's life, in the past 48 hours he did not respond to our medical intervention. Due to the loss of kidney function and muscle mass, his veterinarian, Dr. Mike Beyer, found it impossible to keep him properly hydrated and comfortable." More info here.
John Henry lifetime past performances from DRF

John Henry was a horse of dubious conformation and humble breeding who got his start at the small time Louisiana tracks and went on to earn $6.5 million. Most racing fans have heard of him and know at least this sketchy information about him, but I thought I would try to add a bit more detail to this picture.

He was foaled at Golden Chance Farms in Kentucky in 1975. His sire, Old Bob Bowers, was a moderate racer known more for his bad disposition than his racing prowess and sold as a stallion for a mere $900. His dam, Once Double, was also an undistinguished runner. As a foal, John Henry was remembered as small, ugly, and foul tempered. He also had a conformation defect called "back at the knee" or "calf kneed". Nobody expected anything from him so he was sold at the January mixed sale at Keeneland which usually draws the bottom of the barrel.

At the sale, he managed to hurt himself in the stall so that he came in the ring with a bloody head. Looking a mess, he sold for only a $1,100 bid. As he grew, his knee looked worse and worse and his disposition followed suit. He was known for tearing buckets and tubs off the wall of his stall and stomping them flat. This habit earned him his name after the "steel driving man" of the old folk song.

His less than endearing habits earned him a trip back to the Keeneland sales in 1977 where he was sold for only $2,200. His new owner, Harold Snowden, Jr. from Lexington was pleased with the way he trained and his professionalism on the track, but displeased that his temperment made him nearly uncontrollable off the track or in his stall. This led to his decision to geld him with the hope it would calm him down a bit.

Snowden sold John Henry for $10,000 to a trio of Louisiana owners who placed him in the care of trainer Phil Marino. His first start for them was a maiden race at the now defunct Jefferson Downs which he won despite a very poor start. Marino was very impressed with the way he moved and pointed him to the Lafayette Futurity at Evangeline Downs in Lafayette, LA. Although there were heavy rains, a hurricane threat, and an extremely muddy track, he won his first stakes race.

He failed to win again in nine more races for these connections so they started looking to sell him. They wound up swapping him back to his former owner Snowden for two promising 2-year-olds. He raced him at Keeneland but was disappointed so started trying to sell him again. Through an agent, he finally found a buyer in Sam Rubin who bought him sight unseen over the phone.

His new owner gave him to trainer Bob Donato, a former policeman, who first saw his grass potential. Under him John Henry went on to win 6 of 19 starts and $120,000, starting the year as a cheap claimer and finishing it as a stakes winner. The following year, they had a disagreement on policy and parted ways and John Henry as given to a new trainer, Lefty Nickerson. Under him he won 4 of 11 races in 1979 but when the grass season was over in New York so Rubin decided to send him to California. Nickerson suggested his good friend Ron McAnally as trainer.

Under McAnally, John Henry blossomed and won six stakes races in a row and his popularity began to grown. Initially the plan was to keep him under McAnally out west and Nickerson in the east, but evenually this was scrapped and McAnally had him full time. Because they were such good friends, Nickerson agreed to this and McAnally voluntarily gave him half of his 10% trainer's share of John Henry's earnings.

John Henry's career stayed in high gear for 4 more years with wins in important races like the Santa Anita Handicap (twice) and the Arlington Million (twice plus a second place finish) with success at the highest levels of competition on both dirt and turf. He went out a winner in 1984 at age 9 with four straight stakes wins. The plan was for him to race in the inaugural Breeders' Cup Turf, but an injury forced his retirement only a month before that race. A brief attempt was made at a comeback when he was 10 years old, but the injury flared up again and his retirement was made permanent.

John Henry's final record was 83 starts, 39 wins, 15 seconds, and 9 thirds with $6,497,947 in earnings. He won seven Eclipse awards from 1980 through 1984 including Horse of the Year twice. At the time of his retirement, he was the highest money earning thoroughbred of all time.
John Henry lifetime past performances from DRF

John Henry's retirement home was the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington where many visitors came to see him daily in the Hall of Champions show where they would bring him out to meet his fans and tell his story. He is now buried beside the paddock where he spent 22 years in retirement enjoying a life of leisure. Below is a photo of his actual grave.


The photographs of John Henry above are from my trips to Kentucky in 2006 and 1997 and from Eugene Viti who saw him in 2000. The photo of his grave is from Vanessa Ng who was there the weekend after he died. The collectibles are a small selection of the many John Henry items in my personal collection.

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