John Henry Fights for His Life
September 28, 2007 — John Henry, the resilient racehorse who made a career out of defying the odds, has done it once again.
In mid-September, the 32-year-old Kentucky Horse Park resident started going downhill. Blood tests yielded ominous results. He lost a dramatic amount of weight. The thoroughbred’s condition became so critical, in fact, that staffers began making funeral arrangements for the two-time Horse of the Year.
However, they forgot to consult John Henry. After initial treatment, he rallied the way he so often had at the track with his patented come-from-behind stretch runs. He soon made it clear he had no intention of dying on anyone else’s time schedule.
John Henry is back to eating the coveted chocolate doughnut holes that the park’s executive director, John Nicholson, brings on his daily pilgrimages to the feisty gelding at the Hall of Champions.
While Nicholson is encouraged by John Henry’s current demeanor, “We’re realistic about the prospects,” he said, taking the long view. After all, 32 is a ripe old age for a horse.
But he noted John Henry’ crisis brought some good with it, resulting in a flurry of visitors after his dramatic rejuvenation.
“He is enjoying the adoration that has come his way,” chuckled John. Those making the trip to pay homage have included his former exercise rider, Lewis Cenicola, now a trainer, who flew all the way from California to see his old friend. Trainer Ron McAnally and jockey Chris McCarron also dropped by.
At the start of his career, however, John Henry seemed unlikely to gain much in the way of public attention. Plain-looking, he had an unfashionable sire, Ole Bob Bowers, who once sold for a mere $900. Standing only 15.1 hands and calf-kneed, John Henry did not appear to be a horse who could make history. His auction price at Keeneland, when he first went on the block, was $1,100. But his scorn of taking no for an answer, which translated into a disdain for defeat, and his irascible temperament (apparently inherited from Dad) gave him a leg up in life. As a youngster, he used to stomp his steel buckets and tubs for recreation in his stall, which was the origin of his name (remember the song that goes, “John Henry was a steel-driving man?”).
He earned seven Eclipse awards and is the only horse to win the prestigious Arlington Million twice. By the end of his career, the 1980s’ Racehorse of the Decade became the richest racehorse in history, with $6,591,860 to his credit.
He acts like a multi-millionaire, too. He’s insistent, and his caretakers know they have no choice but to do his bidding. Yet despite his imperious nature, he has struck a chord with fans from around the world, who understand very well why this horse is special beyond what he has accomplished for the record books.
“He is a living reminder that you do not have to have a great pedigree or great advantages to become a champion,” said Nicholson. “He has achieved greatness despite every obstacle, so he offers a lesson–not really about racing or even about horses–but for all of us and what we can achieve if we’re simply determined.”
Along those lines, Nicholson added, “The story of the last couple of weeks in my view is that he will do things, as he always has, on his own terms. He told us he’ll decide when he’s ready and no one else will.”
Robin Bush, one of the caretakers at the Hall of Champions, said in an update on John Henry yesterday morning that, “He’s actually feeling very well, eating everything in sight. He’s hanging in there and mentally he’s doing very well.”
In a conversation punctuated by deep, insistent whinnies from John Henry (“Why are you speaking to someone else when you should be giving me your entire attention?” he seemed to be saying), she commented that he has curtailed his leisurely walks around the park as a result of his condition.
Yet while he is spending a good deal of time in his stall, “he has his back door open so he can go in his paddock when he wants to. Lately, he has been content to be in his little area, though sometimes he wants to go out on our walkway,” Bush said.
John Henry is never shy about letting his minions know his desires.
“He’s very demanding for whatever he wants. He’ll whinny very loudly and bounce his head up and down and paw the door with his hoof and make a loud banging noise,” Bush said.
That behavior can mean either, “I want treats” or “I want out,” in John Henry language.
“If he lets you catch him and put the shank on him, then if he wants to go out he’ll start trying to bull his way right out the door. If he starts to do that, you know you better take him,” Bush said.
John Henry has been off intravenous fluids for several weeks, but he does get Banamine occasionally and some fluid tubed into his stomach when necessary to make sure he is properly hydrated.
His weight is holding steady, though he is still very thin. Since his teeth are worn, which is part of the natural aging process, he gets meals that are easy to chew and digest. They include Southern States senior feed and on occasion a grain from Purina called Ultium that is high-energy, as well as western timothy hay with soft leaves and head.
John Henry continues to impress everyone around him with his desire not only to live, but to continue his reign as a revered superstar.
“He’s fought all his life and had this incredible spirit and the will to conquer and survive,” said Bush. “He’s still doing that. He loves life and is still fighting for it.”
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