Celebrating John Henry’s birthday; a beloved Grand Warrior, Underdog & Horse with Attitude

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TwinSpires Staff

March 8th, 2016


Forty-one years ago, on March 9, 1975, a small, ill-tempered and unfashionably-bred colt was born on Golden Chance Farm in Paris, Kentucky. He was also born back at the knees, a fault which can make horses unable to handle the stress of racing and a characteristic most people avoid when buying horses. Passed around from owner to owner, with some sales being refused because of his physical condition, this unwanted horse sold for as little as $1,100 – he was even traded for a pair of unraced 2-year-olds – before finally being purchased for $25,000 by Sam Rubin, sight unseen.

For the next six racing seasons, Rubin had the last laugh as the ugly ducking now named John Henry achieved about all a Thoroughbred could achieve.

John Henry was the first horse to earn $3 million, $4 million, $5 million and $6 million. With seven Eclipse Awards tucked into his cap, John Henry traveled coast to coast, knocking off the best horses on both dirt and turf as he was named champion Older Male and champion Turf Male as well as a two-time Horse of the Year. John had a following like a rock star, doing so without the Triple Crown races. His fans were old and young, and from all over the world.

John’s racing heroics, coupled with his underdog beginning in life reached so many different people in so many different ways. They could relate to him, his struggles were their's. If he could keep going and overcome it all, so could they. They flocked to him by the thousands each year, even 20 years after his career ended.

What they got was a shock. Instead of their hero singing autographs, John Henry was more likely to try and take fingers with the token carrots and pass gas in their face. And you didn’t dare get anywhere near his back legs. Hero worship was over and many people suffered hurt feelings because “their” hero would sooner snack on them than look at them.

Life with a horse with attitude -- one end bites and the other kicks -- is never easy. The girl who I replaced in 1996 said John really wasn’t a horse – he was an evil old man in a horse suit. He had trapped her in his stall once for more than 30 minutes. As long as she stood still, he left her alone. Once she made for the door, he attacked. It was always a game with John.

But it was never dull and never boring. He’s the only horse I’ve ever had try and kill me. He broke my nose with a cow kick that to this day I do not know how he landed. He bit me in the chest in front of a few hundred people (which is a story in itself) but as mean as John could be, he was ever smarter. His intelligence was the greatest I’ve ever seen in a horse.

Visitors, upon hearing the horror stories of life with John through the years (he did hurt some people), many of them asked how I could stand him, or that I must have hated to work with him. My response was always the same: you needed to love John for who he was, not who everyone wanted him to be.

I loved caring for him; he was my friend. Every year John made rounds through the staff. Each October, at the end of show season, everyone was getting either bitten or kicked. Everyone. The last three years of his life he left me out of his rotation, but I always warned any seasonal or volunteer help to be extra careful until he got them. Then they’d be ok until he gotten everyone and started back through the list again. Everyone was always warned he was like a rattler, and just as fast.

One of our volunteers found out the hard way when he walked into John’s stall to ask me something as I was scratching John’s butt; John snaked his head out before I could say a word and sent him flying 18 feet to underneath the feeder. I will still never forget the look of amazement as I was asked how it all happened so quick -- my previous warnings were meant to scare, not for the truth of how fast he could strike.

In our last few years together, John and I developed a bond I liken to a friend. Once I learned to stop being fearful and gave up partial control of the situation to him, he was easy to work with. It became more of a friend playing a joke on you than a mean spirited attack. If I wanted to put meds on his feet, I did not wall tie him, I did not put a lead shank on him. I simply knelt down and did what I needed to do. Instead of him being angry at the restraint and being made to do something, he would take a couple of steps away from me. I swear I saw him smirking as I would have to gather up stuff and move a few feet toward him.

To this day, 8 ½ years after his death, I still miss him very much. I am recovering from surgery and very limited, yet the need to share my old friend with everyone is stronger than anything I am allowed to do at this point. John was larger than life not because of his racing, but it came from the horse himself: his heart.

I used to call him rugrat because he grew such a long hair coat he looked like a rug. He could also be a rat…the last thing I ever whispered in his ear before we put him to sleep, I promised never to let anyone forget him.

Happy Birthday Rugrat! I will not forget. 

First Photo: John Henry & Tammy at the Kentucky Horse Park's Hall of Champions 

Second Photo: John Henry in 2006

Third Photo: John Henry & former jockeys, Hall of Famers Laffitt Pincay Jr. & Chris McCarron

Fourth Photo: John Henry & Tammy

Fifth Photo: John Henry trying to strike

Sixth Photo: John Henry with trainer Ron McAnally, McCarron & handlers Cathy & Tammy 

Seventh Photo: John Henry with Tammy, Emma Dailey (far right) & a pair of volunteers