A Shocker: John Henry May Return

Times Staff Writer

In a surprising development, the owner of the legendary race horse John Henry has decided to take the 11-year-old gelding out of a nine-month retirement and begin a training campaign designed to prepare him for another run in the Budweiser-Arlington Million, a race he has won twice.

Sam Rubin, who bought John Henry for $25,000 as a 3-year-old and then saw him earn a record $6.5 million in purses, said Tuesday that the horse would be shipped to trainer Ron McAnally’s barn at Hollywood Park in the next few days.

John Henry, whose last race was a win--the 39th of an 83-race career--in the Ballantine’s Scotch Classic at the Meadowlands in October of 1984, was retired last July because of a tendon injury in his right foreleg. There was a fear that the injury might result in a serious breakdown on the track, something Rubin and McAnally, the horse’s trainer most of his career, wanted to avoid.

“There was no bowed tendon,” Rubin said from the offices of his bicycle importing company in New York. “We quit on him too soon, because he’s sound as a dollar now, and when we (Rubin and his wife Dorothy) saw what happened at Keeneland a few weeks ago, we were in tears.”


John Henry, who has been living at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky., since August, was paraded before the public at nearby Keeneland on April 5. The horse may have thought he was going to run in a race, because he kicked and bucked and it took at least four handlers to control him.

“He practically kicked the van down,” Rubin said. “It was a continuous rhythm. He didn’t understand what was happening. It was a terrible thing, the horse was so frustrated. You can’t do that to a horse, it’s just not fair. It’s like telling somebody that they can’t work anymore.”

Rubin has had John Henry inspected several times by veterinarians, who have approved the resumption of the horse’s career.

Rubin said that any money earned by John Henry the rest of the way would be given to charities and the state-owned Kentucky Horse Park, a 1,000-acre tourist attraction that drew about 400,000 visitors last year. Another famous gelding, the 16-year-old Forego, is also living in retirement.


The plan is to begin galloping John Henry at Hollywood Park for a couple of months before he gets into heavy training.

John Henry won the Arlington Million in 1981 and 1984 and finished second in 1983. Although he is not nominated for this year’s Million on Aug. 31, John Henry could be supplemented for $75,000, which is due by late July.

Other possible races for John Henry later this year are the Turf Classic at Belmont Park, the Scotch Classic at the Meadowlands and the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita on Nov. 2.

“If he means what he seems to be telling us, he’ll run again,” Rubin said. “If not, he’ll go back to the Horse Park.

It cost Rubin $133,000 of a $400,000 supplementary fee to keep John Henry eligible for the $2-million Breeders’ Cup Turf Stakes at Hollywood Park in November of 1984. A week before the race, John Henry was scratched because of a swelling in his left foreleg. Rubin said Tuesday that he would pay the $400,000 fee again this year if John Henry is physically able to compete in the Breeders’ Cup.

McAnally saw a videotape of John Henry’s recent appearance at Keeneland. “It was amazing how good he looked,” the trainer said.

Originally, John Henry was going to be brought to Santa Anita for a parade before the public on Breeders’ Cup day.

McAnally said he was going to give John Henry some light training for that appearance. “I didn’t want happening to him what happened to Kelso in New York last year,” McAnally said.


The day after Kelso, Forego and John Henry--three of the best geldings who ever raced--appeared at Belmont Park, Kelso returned to his farm in Maryland and died at 28.

For a long time, John Henry was the only horse Rubin owned. Early this year, he bought five 2-year-olds in Florida at prices between $50,000 and $150,000.

Rubin called one of the acquisitions Jane Henry, hoping that each time the filly ran, at least the name would remind him of the stout-hearted gelding.

If John Henry means what he seems to be saying, Sam Rubin won’t need the filly as a reminder. He’ll be back with the real thing.