Legend of John Henry Grew in Big ‘Cap


Besides being thoroughbred superstars, Ack Ack, Affirmed, Alysheba, Round Table, Seabiscuit and Spectacular Bid share a common success.

All six won the Santa Anita Handicap, which will be run Saturday for the 64th time.

On the honor roll, which includes such other distinguished horses as Best Pal, Greinton, Cougar II, Lucky Debonair and Noor, only one name is seen twice.


John Henry, one of the most popular horses ever to race in this country and who did most of his finest work in California, is the only two-time winner of the Big ‘Cap. He tried for a third victory at age 9, but ran fifth behind Interco in 1984.

Twenty years ago--March 8, 1981, to be exact--the gelding with the humble beginnings won his first Santa Anita Handicap, beating King Go Go, Exploded, Flying Paster and seven others while carrying 128 pounds.

The next year, John Henry packed 130 when he was moved up to first by the stewards after Perrault was disqualified for interference in the final sixteenth of a mile. That was the same impost carried by previous Big ‘Cap winners Spectacular Bid in 1980, Ack Ack in 1971, Round Table in 1958, Mark-Ye-Well in 1953, Thumbs Up in 1945, and Seabiscuit in 1940, but no horse has won carrying more than 128 since John Henry’s second victory.

John Henry began his 6-year-old season in 1981 the same way he’d ended 1980. Starting his first race since winning the Oak Tree Invitational as the 3-2 favorite for owners Sam and Dorothy Rubin, John Henry won the San Luis Obispo Handicap at 1-2 under 127 pounds.

Not wanting to see the former $1,100 weanling purchase burdened with too much weight, trainer Ron McAnally decided to switch the stable star to the main track.

Although he had won races on the dirt, John Henry was better on turf. The Big ‘Cap would be his first start on the main track since his victory in the San Marcos Handicap, a race taken off the grass because of bad weather, nearly 14 months earlier.

Recalled McAnally, who collected the first of his three Big ‘Cap wins that year, “He had never really proven himself on dirt, but he had trained well on it and being the quality of horse he was, there was no question in my mind that he would like the dirt.

“He’s one of the few horses I’ve been around in my life that, when I put the saddle on him, I had total confidence every single time. Having been around racing so long, it was very special to win the Santa Anita Handicap.”

The betting public wasn’t quite as confident. John Henry had been favored in nine consecutive races but was the 19-10 second choice in the Big ‘Cap. Flying Paster, who had won the San Carlos and San Pasqual Handicaps and San Antonio Stakes earlier in the meet, was the 13-10 choice and 129-pound top weight.

Usually close to the pace on turf, John Henry settled in seventh after a 22 3/5 opening quarter, was sixth after a 45 2/5 half-mile set by overmatched longshot Krassawitz, then started to rally along the rail under jockey Laffit Pincay.

With King Go Go, a 13-1 outsider trained by the late Cecil Jolly and owned by Verne Winchell, a longtime client of McAnally’s, two lengths in front after a 1:34 1/5 mile, John Henry angled outside the eventual runner-up and won by a length.

“If the pace was fast, he would lay back and if they were going slow, he would be close,” McAnally said. “John would do whatever the circumstances dictated.”

Flying Paster, probably best known for chasing Spectacular Bid, finished fourth in what turned out to be his final start.

It was also his second failure against John Henry. In the 1980 San Luis Rey Stakes, two weeks after finishing second to Spectacular Bid in the Big ‘Cap, Flying Paster tried turf for the first time.

The experiment didn’t work. He finished next to last as the even-money favorite. John Henry, meanwhile, the fourth choice in the field of seven at nearly 7-1, won, continuing a winning streak that was to reach six before he lost in June at Belmont Park.

“I’ll never forget that day,” McAnally said. “Dorothy Rubin brought a large purse with her and she brought it up to the director’s room.

“I told Sam, who liked to bet, that I thought John was a big price. When we left the track that night, that purse was filled with $100 bills. I don’t know how much Sam bet at the track, but he told me that he also had bet on the horse in Las Vegas.”

The first of his Big ‘Cap wins was the continuation of what was to be a memorable year for all concerned with John Henry.

The gelding went on to win five more graded stakes and the inaugural Arlington Million, beating The Bart by a nose in one of the greatest races in the history of the sport.

For his efforts, John Henry was voted best older colt or gelding, best male grass horse and horse of the year. McAnally won the Eclipse as top trainer and the Rubins, who raced as Dotsam Stable, were honored as the top owners. Golden Chance Farm in Kentucky, where John Henry had been bred, was selected as the top breeder.

In all, he won eight of 10 that year, set a single-season earnings record of $1,798,030 and pushed his total to $3,022,810, more than any horse before him.

“It was a fantasy unlike anything I have experienced in my life,” said Sam Rubin, who had never owned a horse before he bought John Henry for $25,000 in 1978. “I didn’t know much about horses, but my wife and I got very, very lucky with John.

“I don’t really remember either of the [Santa Anita Handicaps] at all. The funniest thing I can remember is that I used to forget the name of the man who was president of Ballantine Scotch.

“His office was on 52nd Street in New York City and I used to meet him at a place near there called Club 21, but I always had a hell of a time remembering his name.”

The president of Ballantine, which sponsored the $900,000 race John Henry won in his final start, at the Meadowlands on Oct. 13, 1984, was John Henry Hobbs.

Now living in Palm Beach, Fla., Rubin says even today he is recognized.

“I see people and they say, ‘Didn’t you own a horse named John Henry?’ ” he said. “It’s amazing to me that people remember.”

After a long absence from the sport, Rubin is once again an owner. He and four partners, all members of the same country club, invested about $50,000 apiece and bought three horses.

Under the name Falls Racing Stable, the group had a winner on Feb. 18 at Gulfstream Park. O K To Dance, a 3-year-old filly trained by Marty Wolfson, won an allowance race.

Retired with 39 victories in 83 starts and $6,597,947 in earnings, John Henry, who was also named horse of the year and best male grass horse in 1984, is still strong and healthy at 26, one of the more popular residents of the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.

“He’s doing great,” said Cathy Roby, the barn manager of the Park’s Hall of Champions. “He is just as spunky as ever.

“His back is getting a little bit lower and his teeth are a little worn down, but he’s still in good shape.

“Last year, we called a veterinarian out because we thought he had hurt some ligaments. The vet took X-rays and he couldn’t believe it. He said John’s bones looked a lot better than some horses he’d seen who were on the racetrack now.

“John has his fan club. There’s a couple from Michigan that show up every year to see him, and there’s a woman from California who comes to visit him on her vacation.

“There’s another woman who lives nearby that we call ‘the carrot lady.’ She comes every other week with all the carrots she can find for John. He gets cards for Christmas and, every year for his birthday, he gets cards and a carrot cake.

“When Mr. McAnally is in town for a sale or a race . . . he always comes over and brings John apples, carrots and sugar.”

McAnally said he last saw the best horse he has ever trained in September.

“He still recognizes me,” he said. “His hearing’s not quite what it used to be because you have to holler pretty loud to get his attention if he’s at the other end of the paddock. He’s a very special animal who was good to everyone who was ever involved with him.”

Rubin also saw John Henry last year.

“He doesn’t know me from a hole in the ground,” he said. “He saw that I had some carrots and apples so he came over. When he was finished and my hands were empty, he turned his back to me and [relieved himself].

“He gets wonderful attention and people come from everywhere to see him. It’s still very hard to believe that everything that happened with John happened to Dorothy and myself.”


Big ‘Cap Draw

The field, in post-position order, for Saturday’s $1-million Santa Anita Handicap, a Grade I race for 4-year-olds and up that will be run at 1 1/4 miles. Television coverage for ‘Big Cap Day on Fox Sports Net starts at 4 p.m. Post time is 4:12.


Horse Jockey Wgt Odds Perssonet Brice Blanc 110 20-1 Wooden Phone Corey Nakatani 117 5-1 Beat All Gary Stevens 113 12-1 Irisheyesareflying Kent Desormeaux 112 10-1 Tiznow Chris McCarron 122 8-5 f-Nurdlinger Jose Valdivia 110 30-1 Jimmy Z Victor Espinoza 111 12-1 Guided Tour Larry Melancon 116 6-1 f-Moonlight Charger Tyler Baze 111 30-1 Tribunal David Flores 112 15-1 Jorrocks Garrett Gomez 113 30-1 Lethal Instrument Laffit Pincay 115 15-1 Bienamado Alex Solis 119 8-1


f-mutuel field