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John Henry has been a crowning thing—that it could happen to me! I've met friends I haven't seen in 40 or 50 years because of this horse. He has introduced me to new people who've enriched my life. I sometimes look out my hotel room in Monte Carlo here and I say, "Hey, Ma! Look at me, Ma!" And, "Hey, Lil, look at me now!"
So look at him now. Not at Sam, and the love story he has to tell, not just yet, but rather at the old horse himself. For there he was again, nine years old, a very elderly racehorse running far beyond his prime, but running faster and better than any American horse of his age has ever run. It was July 23, and John Henry was third and rushing the bend for home in the $219,800 Sunset Handicap, a 1½-mile waltz in triple time over the grass course at Hollywood Park.
He was giving away not only weight, carrying 126 pounds and spotting from eight to 15 pounds to the field, but also all those years. The next oldest horses, Pair of Deuces and Silveyville, were both six, but their mothers were still pregnant and toting them around on that September day in 1977 when John Henry won his first stakes race, the Lafayette Futurity, at Louisiana's Evangeline Downs.
John Henry had won 25 more stakes, had been voted America's 1981 Horse of the Year, had been crowned American grass champion thrice and had become the first racehorse ever to win $3 million in purses, then the first to win $4 million. And now, with a lifetime record of 35 wins in 79 races and earnings of $4,752,997, he was chasing the Sunset's $129,800 first prize, a pot that would leave him only $117,203 short of an astounding $5 million.
For a moment, in the dissolving afternoon light, the old guy seemed less a racehorse than a reminiscence, a throwback. Like so many descendants of his great-grandsire, the legendary Princequillo, John Henry moves with surpassing economy of stride on the grass. To see him running in the Sunset was to recall Princequillo's greatest son, the grass-cutting Round Table, a spare, efficient little machine who would drumroll out of the gate and click off those 12-second 220-yard splits, one after another, until he owned his world.
Now here was John Henry, smooth and quick and clean, striking a beat as steady as a metronome, as he sailed grandly along the hedges—his neck thrust out long and low, his head rising and dipping in cadence to the rocking-horse rhythm of his motion, his hooves skimming the grass.
"He's like an oil well that pumps up and down, up and down," says his trainer, Ron McAnally.
As they made the turn, with [5/16] of a mile to go, jockey Chris McCarron suddenly swung John Henry out from the hedges, heading for the high ground, while Load the Cannons came charging from off the pace on the outside. McCarron saw him coming. He reached back and pasted his mount once, and John Henry snatched the lead. Load the Cannons made a run at him, but fell short. John Henry edged away, under mild pressure, and won the Sunset by a length.
As he galloped back from the turn he resembled a $2 bettor—stopping and staring, as he usually does, at the infield tote board. "He's looking to see how fast he's run," McCarron said.
The board was flashing 2:24[4/5] for the 12 furlongs, only [4/5] off the course record. Now Rubin and his wife, Dorothy—who co-own the horse as the Dotsam Stable—were walking to the winner's circle. Anticipating an August engagement in the Windy City, Sam was singing, "Chicago, Chicago, that toddlin' town...."