I was at a bar not too long ago reading my Daily Racing Form when I struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to me. She asked me what the newspaper was that I was reading and marking up diligently while sipping on my beer. I replied, "Oh, it's tomorrow's racing form", and then awaited the usual surprised look that I get from someone at the bar when they realize I'm handicapping the ponies. (You know the look I'm talking about.)
At the time I was the co-owner of a two year old horse in training at my local track, Emerald Downs. The woman didn't know a whole lot about horse racing but like many people was a fan of watching the Kentucky Derby each year. After I mentioned that I co-owned a horse she asked a question that a lot of people unfamiliar with horse racing ask: "does he (the horse) enjoy it?" It's a surprisingly common question people ask after seeing a jockey urge a horse out of the gate or hit them with the stick towards the finish line. Many people watching a race come to the conclusion that these horses don't want to run but for the urging of their human handlers.
This question presented by the woman at the bar provided an excellent opportunity to explain that the thoroughbred is made to run; that's it primary function and that's what it's born to do. Thoroughbred horses want to run, in fact, many are the happiest when they are at the track competiting. The horse I co-owned was notorious for becoming surly whenever he was turned out to the farm for R&R, his mood quickly changing once he was brought back to the track for training. But at the same time, while we can breed a horse to be a running machine we can't force them to be a winning machine. Sure, humans train these animals to learn to run properly but the horse itself decides how hard and how far it's willing to go.
Every day at the track we see horses that love to run but don't love to win. Some don't win because they are not as physically gifted as those they are running against. And some fail because they don't have the desire to finish ahead of the pack. The classic case of this is the horse known as the "hanger". You've seen them before - the horse that fans wide in mid-stretch with a move that is sure to whisk him by the leaders and propel him to the finish fine only to see his momentum stop and the horse flatten out due to either being tired or just losing interest. The jock will show him the stick or shake him up, but at that point he's just content to hang in his position and run to the line.
Truly great horses come in a variety of packages. Some are the product of prestigious and famous sire lines, like Man o'War and Secretariat. Some are dominate the moment they step on the track as two year-olds, while others develop slowly. Some possess massive frames and seem like giants compared to their competition. And some seem to come out of nowhere overcoming all obstacles and odds, both physical and mental, to achieve unparalleled heights.
The best horses to ever take to the race track don't just love to run they also know how to win. Watch replays of some of the great horses and this fact becomes abundantly clear - the very best know exactly where the wire is. That may seem like an egregious statement, and some may scoff and say, "how could a horse know how to win?" I once thought the same thing, then I saw John Henry.
John Henry, one of the greatest thoroughbred horses in history, wasn't a highly acclaimed juvenile, he never won a Triple Crown race, and he came from a pedigree line that was anything but prestigious. John Henry's legendary status sprang from his ability to run like a champion over and over again. Even as John reached the age that most thoroughbreds begin to decline it seemed that he was just finding his best stride. Like Cigar a decade later, John Henry captivated race fans by continuing to provide memorable moments by winning the biggest races across the country.
John Henry's accomplishment's on the track are numerous and legendary:
He won the Hialeah Turf Cup Hcp., the Oak Tree Turf Championship (3x), the Hollywood Invitational Hcp. (3x), the San Luis Rey Hcp. (2x), and the Santa Anita Hcp. (2x). In all, John Henry won more graded stakes than any Thoroughbred in history - 25, and is one of only two horses (The Tin Man) to win a Grade 1 at the age of nine.
He is only horse ever to win the Arlington Million twice (1981 & 1984), and is one of only three horses to win the Santa Anita Handicap twice.
John Henry was voted Champion Older Horse in 1981, Champion Turf Horse in 1980, 1981, 1983 and 1984, and American Horse of the Year in 1981 and then again at the age of nine in 1984.
When he retired in 1985, John Henry was the richest Thoroughbred in racing history ($6,591,860 in earnings). Today, he is still the richest gelding in history.
John Henry died at the age of 32 on October 8th, 2007, at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky. The Horse Park had been John's home since his retirement from racing in 1985. Following his death, roughly 1,000 people attended a memorial service in his honor in large part because John Henry defined what a great racehorse is...and also because John Henry's fiesty and bull-headed personality made him a fan favorite. John Henry, possibly due to his humble beginnings, possessed a will to win unlike most horses. Trainer Ron McAnally has stated in interviews many times that it was John, not the trainer, that decided his training schedule. It may seem hyperbole to suggest that this horse understood the game of racing, but it's difficult to come to any other conclusion based on the accomplishments of his career.
Below are two videos highlighting the greatness of John Henry: the 1981 Arlington Million at 1 1/4 miles on the turf, and the 1981 Jockey Club Gold Cup at 1 1/2 miles on the dirt. The inaugural running of the Arlington Million in 1981 is, for me, the quintessential John Henry race; a race that is a fabulous testament to John's heart, class, and his ability to run his ass off all the way to the wire. John didn't win this race, nor any other race, due to his overwhelming physical dominance. He won due to his will to win.