In old age, John Henry has change of heart

Other Voices

October 13, 2007|By Melissa Isaacson | Melissa Isaacson,Chicago Tribune

I was never a big horse person. The closest I had come to covering horse racing before the spring of 2005 was auto racing, which is to say not close at all.

And then I met John Henry.

I had come to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington to do a story on the champion thoroughbred's 30th birthday, and I was amused to find a character not unlike an aging Vito Corleone in The Godfather, regarded with equal parts respect and fear.

If this were a retirement home for horses, I thought, we should all be so lucky one day. He was housed in the Hall of Champions, where round-the-clock trainers cared for him in his 20-by-20-foot stall surrounded by windows and leading out into a private, lush one-acre paddock.

John Henry was a gelding, so stud work wasn't part of his retirement routine. The procedure had been performed early in his racing career in an effort to curb his unruly disposition, but he still was like the cranky old man who sits in the corner at the nursing home snapping at all who come near, and his loving caregivers bore the brunt of his grouchiness.

Cathy Roby, Hall of Champions manager who cared for him for 16 years, laughingly referred to "Good John and Evil John," and she was being generous, given the scars she bore from him.

Roby once finished a live interview on Japanese television with blood running down her elbow after John grabbed her thumb and bit down hard. Tammy Siters, John's other trainer, had her nose broken and her glasses shattered when he kicked her in the face. Another handler made the mistake of taking two steps into his paddock and paid for it with 52 stitches in her chest.

And to think, he had been gelded in order to calm him down.

But on the track, the mean little horse who was born with a knee deformity and no future, according to those supposedly in the know, channeled his rancor into a domination of racing in the early 1980s that has not been seen since, including his famous 1981 photo-finish victory at the Arlington Million.

At the Kentucky Horse Park, where he had been turned out in 1985, they came in droves to see him, elderly women bearing apples and carrots. Letters and gifts regularly arrived in the mail.

Of course, his admirers never got close to Ol' John, lest he stomp on their feet or bite their fingers. Very few strangers, in fact, were allowed in the barn, particularly when John was in one of his moods, which was often and easy to detect by the way he ripped his feed bucket out of the wall.

In his paddock, he was mostly left alone, the practice of parading him around the show ring three times a day as an announcer talked about his career long since abandoned.

"John just didn't want to do it anymore," Roby said. "He never liked people, and in the show pavilion there were people all around, and I guess he got claustrophobic. So he found out one day if he threw a fit, bucking and kicking and running circles around the pavilion, we'd take him out.

"We figured after doing it for 20 some years, he didn't have to do it anymore. So we left him in his stall and left the back door open to his paddock."

And there John Henry paced, alone, until one day last spring.

Sensing he was a little bored, his trainers walked him around his paddock. Because he tolerated it so well, they let him go in front of the barn, and when he dragged them a little farther down the walkway, they let him lead.

"Then one day he decided to take a walk around the park," Roby said. "We let him go wherever he wanted to go, and we just followed him."

And that's when a funny thing happened. Roughly the equivalent of 100 years old in human years, John Henry changed. Mellowed. He was still in surprisingly good health, and as his walks became longer, he would show definite preferences.

"He loved to go down and check on the [foals]," Roby said. "He always felt like he had to protect the other horses. If some of them would leave the area and not come back, he'd worry about them and go look for them."

Same with a blind thoroughbred named Staying Together, whom he would call for each day.

"The whole park became his domain, and his world widened a lot," Roby said.

But strangest of all, ornery old John Henry welcomed visitors of all ages, ducking his head and letting children pet him like a pony. And by the breeding barn, he would occasionally take a little detour right through the show ring.

"Whoever was announcing would stop the show and say, `Oh look, here comes John Henry,' and then everyone would stand and applaud," Roby said.

She could barely believe her eyes, which teared up.

Oh, he would let them know he was still John Henry.

"He'd try to grab your knee or bite your leg and he could still bruise you, but it was more like a token gesture," Roby said. "He had to let you know who was still in charge."

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