What Made John Henry Run?

Gait, heart and sheer will combined to ensure racehorse John Henry's unparalleled success. By Mary Kay Kinnish for EQUUS magazine.

Editor’s Note: In memory of John Henry, the legendary racehorse who died October 8, 2007, we present this article from the May 1985 issue of EQUUS magazine. In it, a panel of experts put the gelding to the test to discover exactly what made him a legend.

He is the Old Man of the racetrack and indisputably the best Thoroughbred around. For a number of years the only horse owned by Sam and Dorothy Rubin’s Dotsam Stable, 10-year-old John Henry is a singular celebrity whose career statistics have rocketed him into a class of his own.

By a narrow margin, he was named 1984 Horse of the Year last February, just edging out Equusequity Stable’s Slew o’ Gold in the final tally. It was an at-the-wire victory, not unlike some of those the remarkable gelding has pulled off during the course of his career. The world’s richest racehorse, with lifetime earnings totaling $6,597,947, he is also the only Thoroughbred ever to earn the Horse of the Year title twice in nonconsecutive years. He captured the first in 1981 when he was six. His lifetime record for 83 starts stands at 39 wins, 15 seconds and nine thirds. Six of those wins, one second and a third came from nine starts in 1984.

One of the most talented horses in track history, he is undoubtedly one of the most popular and enigmatic characters, too. John Henry has captured the attention of racing enthusiasts and the media at large both here and abroad.

An early-morning feature on NBC’s Today show, for instance, highlighted the gelding’s idiosyncratic trek to the track on race day, while People magazine included him among such notables as Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca and ghostbusting comedian Bill Murray when it named him one of its 20 most intriguing people of 1984. The magazine’s profile of the horse’s career noted that “like Ronald Reagan, this geriatric marvel traveled the country from coast to coast [in 1984] and convincingly proved that the race is not always to the youngest.”

St. George, a German horse magazine, seems to agree with this reasoning in a recent feature. Titled “John Henry: Nationalheld Und Publik-umsmagnet” (loosely translated, “national hero and magnet of public attention”), the article talks not so much about the horse’s running ability but his racing sense–an intangible and unmeasurable quality that allows him to control a race.

As anyone who has worked with him or religiously watched him from the stands will tell you, the little bay horse with the average-looking body and captivating eyes has come a long way during his racing career. Though he won his first start as a two-year-old on a Louisiana track, he didn’t really distinguish himself until late in his four-year-old year, developing from an average sprinter on dirt to the premier distance horse on grass. Now, surrounded by trainer Ron McAnally, assistant trainer Eduardo Inda, exercise rider Lewis Cenicola, groom Jose Mercado, jockey Chris McCarron and veterinarian Jack Robbins, VMD, the horse has mellowed in the six years that the Rubins have owned him from an unruly, some say roguish, youngster, castrated from his temperament as a two-year-old, to a mature racehorse.

Yet, while those who know him best talk of John Henry’s sense of self, his disdain for hurry and hard work and his determination to stay in front of the pack, no one has ever been able to truly define the quality or combination of factors that make this superhorse tick. Sensitive handling and savvy campaigning obviously enter into the equation for success. But what other attributes account for the gelding’s gradual development, dominant position and durability as a racehorse?

This was the question a curious EQUUS editorial staff brainstormed early last fall. John Henry had caught our eye, too, and we were determined to discover exactly what makes the Old Man of the racetrack run so consistently and so well. We knew that sports medicine could provide many of the answers we were after since it defines athletic effort in terms of measurable features and functions that can be assessed to establish racing superiority. Additionally, inside every winner’s body there is a mind, a psyche, “heart” to match the heart. Desire is an element of winning we don’t yet know how to measure in scientific terms, but there must be clues from which to estimate it, or it wouldn’t be so universally acknowledged and cherished.

After John Henry’s impressive victory in the Budweiser-Arlington Million in August 1984, McAnally’s response to the always-asked “What allows the horse to keep running and winning against the best as a nine-year-old?” was “I guess it’s something only the Almighty knows.”

Because we didn’t want to discount the possibility of divine intervention, or any other influence or factor in the racehorse’s career, we invited the nation’s top equine sports scientists and other prominent experts to pool their talents and analyze the superhorse last January at Santa Anita Park. When all of the arrangements had been made, the EQUUS panel of experts included Matthew Mackay-Smith, a noted veterinarian, equine surgeon and sports medicine advocate; John Chatalas of Gearhart, Ore.; George Pratt, PhD, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Norman Rantanen, DVM, of Echo Affiliates, Inc.; Leon Rasmussen of the Daily Racing Form; Virginia Reames of Ridgewood, N.Y.; Nancy Regalmuto of Futures Unlimited; Linda Tellington-Jones of Carmel, Calif.; and Ken Trimble of Colbert, Okla.

Through their combined efforts, and with the cooperation of all of John Henry’s people, the EQUUS panel put the gelding to some of sports science’s sophisticated tests and other more avant-garde methods of evaluation in order to discover exactly what makes him a legend in his own time.

We left no stone unturned in the course of this project, examining the gelding’s pedigree, along with his feeding, shoeing and training schedules. We listened to his heart, analyzed his blood, played racing films over and over so we could detect subtleties in his gait. We put conformation measurements into a computer and evaluated his bones. We did a hands-on inspection to see if it might reveal any telling clues, then we turned to the secrets of his mind and the special circumstances surrounding his birth to find out as much about this horse as we could. When the experts put their heads together, they resoundingly concluded that John Henry’s success is no fluke. This superhorse is a product of several super qualities, most notably his gait, heart and personality.

Genetically, John Henry might be considered a mild surprise, according to Leon Rasmussen, pedigree analyst for the Daily Racing Form. His sire, Old Bob Bowers, equaled a track record in the Tanforan Handicap, an important 1 1/8-mile stakes race; his dam, Once Double, produced two other stakes-placed horses, Looigloo and Double Dial, along with six other winners. Her sire, Double Jay, is one of the greatest broodmare sires in the history of American breeding, says Rasmussen, the horse’s daughters having produced approximately 110 stakes winners. According to trainer McNally, John Henry’s great-grandsire Princequillo seems to have had the most influence when it came to passing on familial traits. He sees John Henry as a larger but almost identical version of that noted sire.

Since the preeminent racehorse is actually a running machine, his engineering plays a significant part in his success. John Henry’s body is full of racing advantages not obvious at first glance. He is small–standing approximately 15.2 hands and weighing 1,000 pounds–and is so unadorned as to seem plain. Careful assessment, however, reveals that John Henry has a large frame and is a bit leggy for a horse of his size. Of the measurements Mackay-Smith recorded–elbow to ergot, 27 inches; elbow to withers, 26 inches; and withers to croup, 26 inches–the legs are about one inch longer than you’d expect for a 15.2-hand horse, which could contribute significantly to his fluid, ground-eating stride. For the most part, however, the gelding has near-perfect proportions, which combine in a subtle harmony free from any exaggeration except for a big shoulder that places his arm well forward, making his neck look short.

When 21 of John Henry’s measurements were computer analyzed by Ken Trimble of Computer Horse Breeders Association, the gelding placed with the cream of the crop. Trimble has measured thousands of horses and rates engineering–how the horse is put together–and the balance between power, body weight and stride. The highest engineering rating he has ever given is 98.7. John Henry achieved 96.6–still well within the elite. With a power factor of 74 1/2, body-weight factor of 74 and stride factor of 74 1/4, he is built to be a miler, much like another racing great, Northern Dancer, at 75, 75, 75.

If there is a chink in this living legend’s conformational armor, however, it’s his legs. So back at the knee as a youngster that many buyers turned away, his right carpus still bears the stains of early strain. His shin bones, too, show some minor differences in density that are probably the result of slightly unequal wear, but for the most part, they are stronger than those of other racehorses. John Chatalas, of Chat Monitors, Inc., measured John Henry’s bone density using pitch-and-catch ultrasound transmission, which he developed with his partner Thad Young. The key to this measurement is that the speed of the ultrasound passage is directly related to bone hardness, which normally builds with use and age and declines with injury and overwork. John Henry’s bone density is above average compared to the measurements of 26 two-, three- and four-year-old Thoroughbreds, and the gelding came out considerably ahead of three racehorses his own age who are still in work.

Since the horse was moved to California as a late four-year-old, trainer McAnally has always backed off or withdrawn John Henry at the slightest hint of soreness. Suspensory ligaments have been the focus of concern, flaring up twice in the right fore and recently in the left. Veterinarian Jack Robbins remarks, however, that the horse heals faster and more completely than most–no scarring or thickening afterward to mark the strain. These minor setbacks have limited John Henry’s starts to about eight per year. (Imagine the record an uninterrupted campaign could have piled up by now.) But his ankles are still like new, and that’s where most older horses eventually wear out.

According to George Pratt, PhD, professor of electrical engineering at MIT, John Henry’s ultra-smooth and efficient gait makes remarkable use of the conformational assets he does posses. Pratt estimated the timing of each of the horse’s legs on the ground and in the air, and the integration of the legs in a stride. He identified a “wheel-spoke” efficiency of the extremely long, low strides which approaches the ideal for distances of three-quarters of a mile and more.

What the professor noticed in his New England lab, jockey McCarron swears to at the Santa Anita track. “John Henry is the smoothest horse I ever rode,” he says with wonder and respect. “You just can’t imagine how smooth.” It’s this quality, too, that has helped to keep the 10-year-old from breaking down since his legs and hooves aren’t subject to the same sort of pounding that less-fluid movers have to endure.

Fueling the horse’s special stride is an amazing cardiovascular system. John Henry’s low resting pulse of 26 to 28 beats per minute gives a rough estimate of correspondingly large heart size. Norman Rantanen, DVM, of Lexington, Kentucky’s Echo Affiliates, Inc., couldn’t fit the horse’s whole left ventricle onto the ultrasound imager he used to determine the size of the heart. According to Rantanen, John Henry’s left ventricle measurement of approximately 20 centimeters puts him in the upper three percent of the stakes-winning racehorses he’s evaluated to date. Though a “heart score”–a comparison of a horse’s weight to certain dimensions of an electrocardiogram (ECG) traced on paper–might have also verified the size of John Henry’s heart, Rantanen wasn’t able to obtain an ECG reading because the horse wouldn’t tolerate the skin clips.

Even without the measurement, however, when you think about the horse’s small stature in relation to his large heart, you realize the tremendous pumping capacity he has per pound, ensuring that a sufficient amount of oxygen is being delivered to his working muscles whenever he races. In essence, this allows him to do much of his fast work efficiently and aerobically so that he can cruise by the competition late in the race, and the longer the race the better for him.

In addition to his large heart, the horse probably has a large spleen, Mackay-Smith speculates, because his resting red blood cell count was an extremely low 32. Only a good-sized spleen could hold enough red cells in reserve to fuel John Henry’s needs in the heat of competition. A working red blood cell percentage compared to the resting cell percentage would have provided proof positive about the spleen. However, we were unable to conduct this test as well as one for total blood volume per pound, an indicator of endurance, because the horse was out of training when we were there.

Closely related to heart size and the efficient delivery of oxygen via the blood, are a horse’s muscle characteristics. Central to speed and endurance in the elite runner, they are genetically determined, and the best Thoroughbred racehorses generally have 75 percent or more fast-twitch oxidative, Type IIA fibers. While Mackay-Smith noticed that John Henry’s muscles were the relatively flat sort indicative of fast endurance, it was impossible to conduct a biopsy to exactly determine their fiber content. The way he runs and wins, however, is powerful evidence of correct muscle composition.

One area where John Henry proved that he’s just like any other horse was in a hormone analysis. Both his testosterone (the male sex hormone) and estrogen (the female counterpart) fell within the normal range, offering no credence to the theory that heightened hormonal output is essential to racing competence. In this gelding’s case, there’s no high male-to-female hormone ratio to make him tougher in the stretch and more dominant over his peers.

Nutrition is often cited as a key to performance, but John Henry’s diet is also traditional. All he gets are oats with sweet feed, hay, salt and water–no supplements, additives, drugs or “jugs.” The blood test we took was his first in a least six years.

Beyond the physical qualities that can be measured by objective science, there are the more intangible qualities that give a winner the edge. Of all the factors involved in John Henry’s success, his personality is perhaps the most obvious. All of the members of our panel of experts were instantly aware of his powerful presence, whether they were stallside or watching him on film. According to Mackay-Smith, John Henry’s distinctiveness isn’t physical, startling or spectacular, but penetrating and absolute. He is self-confident, aloof, alert, studious, wise and, it must be said, more than a bit theatrical. At the risk of anthropomorphizing, he’s one horse who’ll never fall victim to an equine identify crisis. That look in his eyes tells you John Henry knows exactly who he is.

His legendary eccentricities–stopping wherever he wants and working only when and as far as he pleases–are respected and tolerated by his keepers, who know that there’s no changing the horse’s mind. Training can have a powerful effect on performance, especially for speed over endurance, but John Henry thwarts any ambitious schedules.

According to trainer Ron McAnally, “Any horse who does what he does in his races can do as he pleases the rest of the time. He’s never a bit of trouble if you just respect his needs.” As a result, McAnally concedes, he nearly lets the horse run his training program himself. He’ll gallop all day, but when it comes to fast work, about six furlongs are his limit. Overall, his training is even lighter than conventional racetrack preparation.

In a race, says jockey McCarron, John Henry commands his competition just as forcefully: he seems to know what the other horses are going to do, adjusts his pace and route accordingly without guidance, and once in front is about impossible to pass. Look at the faces in his win pictures–you can see who is in charge.

As three special experts from our panel were able to ascertain, using perhaps less conventional but no less valid techniques than those the sports scientists used, the gelding’s will is as strong as any part of his body. According to Linda Tellington-Jones, who had an opportunity to use her Tellington-Jones Equine Awareness Movements (T.E.A.M.) on him, John Henry’s anatomy, combined with a Napoleonic view of himself, makes him exceptionally strong and successful. Psychic Nancy Regalmuto agreed after “reading” the horse. She said that his strength stems from his dam and shows up as a superb physical constitution and a determined will to survive. Astrologer Virginia Reames concurs, pointing to John Henry’s castration as the event in his life which focused his energy on running.

So there you have it: gait, heart and will are what make John Henry run. When we began this project we knew that he was no ordinary horse, but until all of the evidence was in, none of us realized how truly special he is.

Check out the May 1985 issue of EQUUS for a detailed analysis of the sports scientists’ results along with profiles that relate to the horse’s personality and mind and a complete biography. Call 301-977-3900 ext. 0 to order the back issue.

This article originally appeared in the May 1985 issue of EQUUS magazine.




Related Posts

Gray horse head in profile on EQ Extra 89 cover
What we’ve learned about PPID
Do right by your retired horse
Tame your horse’s anxiety
COVER EQ_EXTRA-VOL86 Winter Care_fnl_Page_1
Get ready for winter!


"*" indicates required fields


Additional Offers

Additional Offers
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.