When future generations of racing fans look back on John Henry, they will be most impressed by the statistics he compiled.
Few horses -- even great "iron horses" of the past like Kelso and Forego -- have been so consistent and durable. John Henry raced 83 times over an eight-year career and scored 39 victories, most of them in top-class competition.
And even if inflation and bonus payments make million-dollar earnings commonplace in the future, few thoroughbreds are going to approach John Henry's bankroll of $6,597,947.
But these cold numbers don't begin to convey John Henry's virtues or his significance in the sport. In an era when the cost of thoroughbreds has skyrocketed and only the super-rich can afford the best-bred horses, he was a reminder that the little man still can strike it rich in racing. He was proof, too, that those cornball qualities of heart, courage and competitiveness sometimes can overcome a humble pedigree.
The only thing John Henry couldn't overcome, ultimately, was age. The gelding injured a tendon last week while training for his first start as a 10-year-old, and while trainer Ron McAnally professed hope that the gelding could make another comeback, he had to know that this was the end. So, too, did his owner, Sam Rubin. When McAnally explained the nature of the injury, Rubin told him, "We've come a long way and we've had a lot of good times. Good things don't last forever." On Sunday, Rubin made it official and announced the gelding would be retired.
What made John Henry so good? How could a horse who sold originally for $1,100 (and eventually cost Rubin $25,000) go on to dominate American racing?
McAnally has always insisted that John Henry is an unusually intelligent racehorse, and his record suggests that he did learn from experience. Other horses might have this capability, but the good ones usually are retired to stud so quickly that they don't get a chance to show what they could accomplish in the long, long run. As a gelding, John Henry did.
John Henry never showed much ability until he was introduced to turf racing as a 3-year-old; before then he even had lost a $20,000 claiming race on the dirt. He did most of his racing on the grass thereafter, and when he won his first Eclipse Award at the age of 5, he was considered strictly a turf specialist. But during the next year he entered, and won, the country's two most prestigious races for older horses on the dirt: the Santa Anita Handicap and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Maturity and experience clearly had taught him something.
John Henry was smart in competition, too. Some great horses have only one running style and are limited accordingly, but John Henry could do anything. Although obstreperous in the mornings, he was perfectly tractable for jockeys who rode him in the afternoon.
If there wasn't much speed in a field, John Henry could go to the front. If a speed duel developed, John Henry would patiently sit behind the leaders and let them blow each other out. If necessary, he could come from far off the pace, as he did in last fall's Ballantine Classic at the Meadowlands, which proved to be the last race of his career.
John Henry was helped by the proliferation of big-money grass races during his career; top horses of previous generations had to run mostly on the dirt to earn big money, and the harder surfaces took a greater physical toll on them. John Henry was abetted, too, by the craven racing secretaries at the tracks where he campaigned.
Rather than risk losing a big box-office attraction, they would give him soft weight assignments for handicap races in order to entice him. So while Kelso and Forego -- the great geldings with whom he was often compared -- frequently had to tote weights above 130, John Henry never carried more than 127 in his last two years of racing.
But the gelding's greatest asset was his indomitable competitive spirit. In 1981 he earned his first Horse of the Year title with consecutive victories in the Arlington Million, the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Oak Tree Invitational. His margins of victory were a nose, a head and a neck. He was a horse who wouldn't surrender -- except to the inevitability of growing old.