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Tuesday, October 9, 2007
John Henry, racing's ambassador

By Jeremy Plonk
Special to ESPN.com

John Henry was your horse, and mine, a horse for the ages. What made him so special was that he represented all walks of life. Anyone could relate to John Henry, from America's bush tracks to its most majestic race places. If ever the game had an ambassador in my lifetime, it was not any hired human or public figure, but rather a culturally binding animal named John Henry, for whom we could all stand up and cheer.

As a horse racing fan who grew up attending races held far off the sport's prestigious beaten paths (that's a nice way of saying I was groomed on cheap racing), the mere fact that I knew and loved John Henry is a glowing testament to his reach. For horse racing fans in their mid-30s to early 40s, John Henry simply was the man.

Before simulcasting, before the Breeders' Cup, before people nationally recognized the likes of D. Wayne Lukas or Jerry Bailey, there was John Henry. He was the one horse that every horse racing fan knew, no matter which bush track or race palace you frequented. All of my early racing heroes were from the local tracks I canvassed with my Dad and brother -- except one: John Henry. I imagine it was like that for most, since horse racing was so much more colloquial back then.

Today, horseplayers sitting at Santa Anita know the stars at Keeneland, and even those at off-the-beaten-trail tracks know the game's stars through the world of simulcasting and the Internet. And while we watched the Kentucky Derby in our living room as far back as I can remember, and enjoyed the ABC Wide World of Sports spring prep races, for some reason those horses didn't stick and stay in spirit. Each year, another crop came and left.

John Henry was different. He came from nothing and rose to greatness. A namesake to American folklore, how fitting it was that John Henry would later join the ranks of national icons. From out of the Louisiana bush tracks, he became a well-known superstar to California and New York racing fans with dominating wins in the best races on both coasts. His reach embraced those horse racing epicenters, only needing a national platform in which to spread the love.

He rose to the pulpit Aug. 30, 1981, when Arlington Racecourse and NBC Sports introduced the inaugural Arlington Million to the world. Here was a race with six, count 'em six, zeroes behind the purse -- something never-before-seen in Thoroughbred racing. That number still means a lot today, ask Regis Philbun or Howie Mandell, but think back to what the Million meant in 1981. Baseball's first million-dollar contract, that of fireballer Nolan Ryan, came only one season prior. Magic Johnson had just inked a $1 million-per-year deal that had teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar envious.

With the world watching, John Henry burnt his legacy into the minds of anyone who watched. He didn't just win the inaugural Arlington Million and its jackpot payoff, he provided theater. Eighth of 12 early on, the then-6-year-old gelding rallied furiously through the stretch to nip The Bart by a nose in a race that camera angles and racing fans to this day still can argue its winner. That exact moment in time presides over the Arlington paddock area in bronze today, truly one of the sport's statues of legacy.

That day, John Henry changed everything. He was no longer a rags-to-riches story on the racing pages. No longer a handicap division stalwart in New York and California. He became everyone's horse. John Henry was the central, national figure that grabbed you by the hand and led you down a trail that never seemed to end. One horse, yet he did so much.

John Henry's Racing Career Through The Years:

1977: Debuted a winner May 20 for trainer Phil Marino at tiny Jefferson Downs in Louisiana, and later would add the Lafayette Futurity at Evangeline Downs.

1978: Mired in a 10-race losing streak that saw him compete for as little as a $20,000 claiming race, he changed hands to new trainer Robert Donato and meteorically rises to a graded stakes winner in Arlington's Round Table by season's end.

1979: John Henry wins just one of seven stakes races on the campaign, including losses at Penn National, Atlantic City, Belmont, Santa Anita and Suffolk, changing hands late in the year to Ron McAnally's barn in California.

1980: New Year's Day dawns a new day as he wins the San Gabriel Handicap and begins a six-race tour de force in which he wins a half-dozen graded stakes on turf and dirt in less than five months' time. His breakout year at age 5 also included the Oak Tree Invitational at season's end.

1981: Five straight graded stakes wins open the dream campaign as the 6-year-old is as good as ever. After being upset in the Hollywood Gold Cup, John Henry put together another four-race stakes blitz, which included August's Arlington Million, then the world's richest Thoroughbred horse race.

1982: Slowed to just a six-race campaign, which included his second straight Santa Anita Handicap victory, but concluded with a disappointing 13th-place finish in the Japan Cup at Tokyo Racecourse.

1983: Off more than seven months after Japan, John Henry wins the American Handicap as his lone prep race for his second Arlington Million engagement, where he finishes second by a neck to Tolomeo. He later added the Hollywood Turf Cup to cap his 8-year-old campaign.

1984: John Henry's seventh and final season on the racetrack, at age 9, capped his remarkable career in legendary fashion, winning his final four starts and six of his final seven trips to the post. His victories included a fitting encore score in the Arlington Million, the race that most defined his public reach. Unfortunately, he was injured and retired just prior to the inaugural Breeders' Cup at Hollywood Park, where he certainly would have been the perfect ambassador to pass racing's torch to the masses.

Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine and its Web site, HorsePlayerdaily.com. You can E-mail Jeremy about this topic or any other racing-related topic at plonk@horseplayerdaily.com.