SI Vault
 
An Oldie But Goodie
William Nack
August 27, 1984
John Henry, the richest horse in the world, is still racing—and superbly—at the ripe age of nine
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 27, 1984

An Oldie But Goodie

John Henry, the richest horse in the world, is still racing—and superbly—at the ripe age of nine

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

The way it went was this: Sam's first wife, Lillian, was a first cousin of Courtney Levinson, an accountant who married Dorothy. Sam and Courtney were best friends. The two couples were close. Dorothy used to bounce Sam and Lillian's little girl, Phyllis, on her knee. In 1942, however, the Rubins and the Levinsons had a falling-out over money Sam owed Courtney—Sam was a big gambler then, and he always owed money—and the couples never spoke again.

Courtney died in 1972, and Lil died four years later. Sam and Dorothy hadn't seen one another for 35 years when, after a phone call from Sam, they met in the lobby of the Doral Beach Hotel in Miami Beach in October 1976. Sam put his arms around Dorothy and kissed her, and there was applause from the strangers who had stopped to watch them.

"We looked at each other and cried," says Sam. They were married six months later.

And John Henry? Well, he grew up poor in Kentucky. Or, at least, he was born to common folk down there, at the Golden Chance Farm of Verna Lehmann, but there was a touch of wild romance in his past, too, beginning with Princequillo. Princequillo's dam, Cosquilla, was carrying him on a farm in France as the German armies were preparing to invade in 1939. War was imminent. So the pregnant mare was dispatched to Ireland, where she dropped her foal in 1940. Later, they loaded him into the hold of a cargo ship and sent him sailing, through submarine-infested waters, to America. He disembarked here in 1942—an orphan of the war, of sorts.

On these shores Princequillo made his enduring mark, first as a racehorse and later as one of the greatest sires in American history. He started off running in cheap claiming races, but by the end of 1943 he had improved so much that he was acclaimed the best long-distance runner in America. Retired to stud, Princequillo became a whirlwind. He sired sound horses, like Round Table, with stamina and speed.

And some tough customers, too. Prince Blessed was one. He was beautifully bred," by Princequillo out of Dog Blessed, the dam of America's champion sprinter of 1956 and '57, Decathlon, but he also turned out to be a nasty little rogue to work around. Prince Blessed became a stakes winner, but he never chopped much hardwood as a sire.

He did beget Ole Bob Bowers. He was a mean-spirited cuss, too, and even less of a racehorse. Ole Bob ended up winning the Tanforan Handicap, but not much else. He was eventually sold as a stallion for $900, but not before Lehmann had bred him to Once Double, a nondescript producer herself. She dropped her foal in March 1975, and he wasn't much to look at when he got to his feet. He was very straight in the knees, almost back at the joint, a structural defect that predisposes a horse toward breaking down.

"Our farm manager and our veterinarian said he could break down or just wouldn't race," Lehmann recalls.

So she entered him in a cheap winter sale at Keeneland. The colt had apparently banged his head in his stall, ripping the skin off his forehead, and by the time he was led into the ring, he was a mess. "He looked like a drowned rat with blood running off his forehead," owner and trainer John Callaway recalls. He bid $500 anyway. Someone bid $1,000. Callaway went to $1,100. Sold!

"I never did put a saddle on him," Callaway says. "The older he got, the more calf-kneed he became. I had a new vet and he kept advising me to get rid of the horse. Didn't think he'd stand training." Worse, like his father and grandfather, the colt was a little crazy.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10