John Henry was named 1981's horse of the year yesterday. He was also voted the champion grass horse and champion older male horse, and he may bring additional honors for his owner, trainer and jockey when those Eclipse Awards are announced today.

Even though he has won so many trophies and so much money -- he is the first horse in history to earn more than $3 million -- John Henry will not be remembered as one of the great thoroughbreds of all time. He didn't display great brilliance or dominate his rivals the way champions like Spectacular Bid and Secretariat did. He had the good fortune to reach his peak in a year when there were no exceptional horses in the country and when purses for major races had begun to skyrocket.

But if history won't revere John Henry as an individual, it may remember him for being the horse who verified a historical trend: the growth of California as America's preeminent racing state.

In the last quarter-century, only two California-based animals were voted horse of the year: Swaps in 1956 and Ack Ack in 1971. Even while Santa Anita and Hollywood Park were becoming the most successful tracks in the country, attracting the biggest crowds and handling the most money, the quality of the stakes horse there didn't seem to compare with the East's. The most prestigious stables operated in New York, and championships were decided there.

John Henry's record demonstrates that this popular view of California racing is no longer valid. The gelding didn't dominate his West Coast rivals; he had to work hard for every victory. He lost his most recent start and won the previous one in a desperate stretch drive. There was a remarkable depth of talent on the West Coast.

When John Henry went to Chicago to win the Arlington Million, the only rival who gave him a battle was another California invader. When he went to New York for the Sword Dancer Stakes, nobody gave him a battle; he scored his easiest victory of the entire year. Later, he wrapped up the horse-of-the-year title by winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup on the dirt, even though he was considered a grass specialist who doesn't like racing on dirt.

The records of other horses in other categories verifies the high quality of competition in California (Local racing fans will remember that an apparently second-rate California horse, Providential II, beat some of the world's best horses in the Washington, D.C. International last month). As the growth of purses on the West Coast continues to outpace the rest of the country, California racing will get even better. The old notion that a horse can prove he is a champion only by winning certain major stakes in New York is becoming an anachronism.

While John Henry's championships were fully expected and utterly noncontroversial, some of the other choices for Eclipse Awards leave room for a bit of second-guessing. The winners:

2-year-old colt -- Deputy Minister.

2-year-old filly -- Before Dawn.

3-year-old colt -- Pleasant Colony.

3-year-old filly -- Wayward Lass.

Older mare -- Relaxing.

Female turf horse -- De La Rose.

Sprinter -- Guilty Conscience.

Steeplechase horse -- Zaccio.

The selection of Deputy Minister as a champion is hard to justify despite his eight-for-nine record. In the Champagne Stakes at Belmont, the premier race for 2-year-olds, Timely Writer trounced Deputy Minister by eight lengths. After that defeat, Deputy Minister won two stakes, Laser Light finishing second in both of them. Then Laser Light went west and finished 20 lengths behind a colt named Stalwart.

On the basis of these results, one could make a pretty good case for either Timely Writer or Stalwart. The only apparent case for Deputy Minister was the case of scotch whose contents were distributed in the form of gifts to some of the Eclipse Award voters. History will prove that Deputy Minister didn't merit the title.

Nor did De La Rose deserve to be the champion female turf runner. Voters for the Eclipse Awards often seem not to notice when 3-year-olds have been compiling impressive records by beating members of their own age group and avoiding tougher older competition. De La Rose did this. But another 3-year-old filly, April Run, competed against older males in her two American starts, winning the $300,000 Turf Classic at Aqueduct and finishing second in the Washington, D.C. International. In a head-to-head confrontation, she would figure to beat De La Rose. In the Eclipse voting, she wuz robbed.