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One afternoon at Belmont he approached Whittingham, who was visiting in the East, and asked Charlie to take John Henry with him back to Santa Anita. Whittingham hesitated, finally saying, "If you want to send him out, I'll see if I can make room." As Rubin walked away, the trainer turned to Sandy Hirsch, a zestful horseplayer and the wife of trainer Buddy Hirsch, and said, "Who the hell is John Henry?"
"He's a nice little horse who's won a couple of races around here," said Sandy.
But Rubin, a proud man, thought Whittingham too nonchalant, and so he looked elsewhere for a trainer. Nickerson suggested his old friend McAnally. McAnally had grown up in an orphanage in Covington, Ky. and had learned the business under his uncle, trainer Reggie Cornell, for whom he helped condition the legendary stretch runner Silky Sullivan. A patient, solid horseman, McAnally was still looking, at age 47, for his first Hall of Fame racehorse.
That fall he found him. Under McAnally, John Henry blossomed in the West Coast sun. After saddling him for a first and two seconds in California to close out his 1979 campaign, McAnally sent him out on New Year's Day 1980 for the San Gabriel Handicap on the Santa Anita turf course. John Henry won by a head. Then he won four more rich grass races in succession, including the San Luis Rey Handicap at Santa Anita—in which he scorched over the 1½ miles in 2:23 flat to equal the course record—the San Juan Capistrano at 1¾ miles and the 1½-mile Hollywood Invitational.
The streak stamped John Henry as the best grass horse in America. In the four seasons since he won that San Gabriel, he has dominated grass racing in this country. He has won the Oak Tree Invitational and the Hollywood Invitational, two of the biggest turf races in this country, three times each, and at the age of six, in 1981, he won two of this country's most important dirt races, the Santa Anita Handicap and the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont.
The Arlington Million that year was a doozy, one of those races John Henry turned into a showcase for himself, as he had the 1980 Oak Tree, advertising his grit and demonstrating what Jimmy Kilroe, the esteemed handicapper for Santa Anita, meant when he recently said of the old horse, "He's keen for the game."
In the 1980 Oak Tree, the climax and centerpiece of a laborious 12-race campaign that had begun with that string of grass victories, John Henry was in trouble most of the way. At one crucial point coming off the last turn, says his rider, Laffit Pincay Jr., he was "shuffled back from fifth to 10th." Desperate, Pincay wheeled him to the outside, found a ray of light between horses and drove John Henry toward it. The gelding fairly pounced through the breach and won in a flourish, by a length and a half.
"An unbelievable move," Pincay says. "One of the most impressive moves I've ever seen a good horse make." That race clinched John Henry's first Eclipse Award, the industry's Oscar, as American grass champion of 1980. If that seemed accolade enough for an off-bred, calf-kneed $1,100 yearling with a bad temper, it was but a prelude to 1981. The whole year wheeled around the last quarter mile of the Million.
The turf was soft, not to John Henry's liking, and he left the gate floundering like a newborn foal. "It took him three-eighths of a mile to get his feet under him," Shoemaker says. "But he finally got ahold of it." John Henry moved up on the inside around the far turn, with Shoemaker looking for a hole. Unable to find one, he finally swung out and began his charge at front-running The Bart through the stretch.
Slowly, John Henry closed on The Bart, each stride whittling into his lead. It shrank to a length. Half a length. A neck. A head. Suddenly John Henry was bobbing nose and nose with The Bart. At the wire, John Henry won by a whisker. It had been one of the most rousing finishes in memory.