The Sunset had primed John Henry to run in this Sunday's Budweiser Million at Chicago's Arlington Park, a 1¼-mile spin on the grass that the gelding had won by a desperate nose in 1981 and of which his rider at the time, Bill Shoemaker, said, "It was probably the greatest race I've ever ridden in."
There was still spring in John Henry's feet in this autumn of his racing life, so Sam was celebrating. "He did it again!" Rubin kept saying. "My, my, my! Wow, wow, wow!"
That John Henry began doing it at two and is still doing it at nine makes him the rarest of the rare. Nor did the Sunset seem the last bright flash from a dying bulb, but rather the latest evidence that this ill-bred castoff with the large barrel and plain head—who once sold for $1,100 as a yearling and was castrated to calm a vicious disposition—is still at the top of his game.
Charles Whittingham, the dean of California trainers, has grown weary of watching the horse race from one triumph to another in the past five years. Whittingham once had a chance to train John Henry, when the horse was still unknown, but he was so blasé about the prospect that Rubin sent him to McAnally. The horse has since made a career of haunting the trainer. In the Sunset, Whittingham had saddled four against him.
"I may not beat him," he said before the race, "but I've got him surrounded. Goddammit! He beat Balzac when I had him, and I've got 2-year-olds in the barn sired by Balzac and John Henry's still running! I've finished on his ass more than anybody." When Load the Cannons chased him home in the Sunset, it was the 10th time in five years that one of Whittingham's horses had finished second to John Henry in a major stake.
"They say he's nine years old," Whittingham said, "but he's better now than when he was four or five. I've never seen him better than he is now. The sonofabitches I have chasing him won't even live to be nine!"
If this is so, if John Henry is better now than he ever has been, then historically he has no peer. There have been innumerable good and great geldings in the annals of the American turf, but not one of the truly great ones—not Exterminator, not Armed, not Kelso, not Forego—was still whipping first-rate horses in major stakes at so advanced an age.
"I've never seen a horse with such determination," says Whittingham, who started his training career in 1934. "He's always running at you."
Which makes all the more remarkable the tale of John Henry's roots, his blue-collar upbringing. "He came up from the ghetto," says McAnally. "He's a storybook horse." In fact, no one grew up rich in the John Henry crew, and everyone has a story.
Dorothy and Sam Rubin were friends when they were growing up poor in New York City. They're married now, but that didn't happen until April 1, 1977, just seven weeks before John Henry broke his maiden. They didn't know John Henry then. To be sure, it had been a long time since they had first known each other.