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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
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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

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"Today I don't have to," he said.

He simply decided to quit. "We woke up on Monday morning and we were both crying," he says. "I had no flame to walk into, no fright in me, no fear of where I was going to get the money to pay off the bookmakers. God, what a feeling!"

Free of the books, Rubin began accumulating wealth as a bicycle salesman, and with a small slice of it he made out the $25,000 check to Snowden for John Henry. Not knowing what they had, they gave the horse to trainer Bobby Donato, a retired Philadelphia cop with a small stable.

"He was a nice, solid little horse," Donato says now. Donato ran John Henry as a $25,000 claimer on the dirt at Aqueduct, and he won by 2½ lengths. As he came off the track, Donato said to Rubin, "You know, this horse seems to have a grass foot. I'm going to run him on the grass."

So Donato wheeled him back two weeks later at 1[1/16] miles on the grass at Belmont Park, in a race in which he could have been claimed for $35,000. John Henry won by 14 lengths in 1:41[3/5], fast time. That was the last time he ran for a claiming tag.

John Henry finished the year with six victories in 19 starts and earnings of $120,319, including his second stakes win on the grass, the $20,000 Chocolatetown Handicap at Penn National. One of the prizes was a silver bowl filled with Hershey chocolate kisses, and Rubin, a chocoholic, devoured them all.

Donato has a picture of the finish of that race hanging above the desk in his spare office in Barn 7 at Aqueduct. "You can see his action," Donato says. "He just glided on the turf." The Chocolate-town was Donato's last race as the trainer of the horse. "He was wonderful with him," Rubin says, "but sometimes you get a gut feeling that you have to change."

Rubin gave John Henry to trainer V.J. (Lefty) Nickerson, who runs a big racing stable in New York. "Mr. Rubin told me he was a vicious little critter," Nickerson says, "but that wasn't so when I got him. He'd just come off the farm and maybe he'd sweetened up. He was a very gentle horse."

Nickerson had John Henry for most of 1979, when he won four of 11 races and $129,864, but it took the horse until late summer to find his gait. He won two stiff allowance races on the grass in New York, in one of which he beat the champion filly Waya. That autumn the man who runs the binocular concession at the New York tracks, Cohen Johnson, advised Rubin to send John Henry to California. There was all that winter grass racing out there, and big purses to boot.

"I says to myself," recalls Rubin, " 'You know, Sam, this man is right.' "

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