John Henry (inside) battles Win to the wire in the 1984 Turf Classic (G1) at Belmont Park. (Photo courtesy Horsephotos.com)
At a time when a gelding – Wise Dan – is the reigning Horse of the Year, the New York Racing Association has fittingly placed a spotlight on one of the sport’s greatest geldings.
John Henry was one of the most beloved horses of his era, earning Horse of the Year honors twice (1981 and 1984) while winning 39 races from 1977 through 1984 and racking up $6,591,860 in earnings without the benefit of running in a Breeders’ Cup race.
Some of his biggest wins took place in California, but he also spent a large chunk of his career on the East Coast and NYRA has packaged all 20 of his New York starts on their YouTube.com page so that a new generation of fans can be introduced to a gallant gelding who rose from the claiming ranks to become the sport’s most popular champion.
The series starts with his Big Apple debut, a May 21, 1978 claiming race at Aqueduct that was John Henry’s 18th career start and fourth victory. It concludes with a gutsy neck victory over Win – who was also a gelding - in the Turf Classic on Sept. 22, 1984 in the next-to-last of his 83 starts.
In between, you’ll see wins in the 1981 Sword Dancer and the 1980 Brighton Beach as well as perhaps his most stirring moment in New York, a victory in the 1981 Jockey Club Gold Cup.
John Henry faced 10 rivals on that October afternoon in the JC Gold Cup, including Relaxing, who would be named that year’s champion older female, as well as Summing and Temperence Hill, winners of the two most recent editions of the Belmont Stakes.
Relaxing would finish third, a length behind the victorious John Henry.
Splitting them was the horse who made John Henry work the hardest that day, Peat Moss. Horses named after types of fertilizers are usually anything but memorable, but Peat Moss was in some ways a poor man’s John Henry. He, too, was a gelding who rose from a claimer to a stakes winner and ran the race of his life in the JC Gold Cup to rally inside of John Henry in the final yards lose by a rapidly diminishing head in a thrilling stretch run that belonged to two blue collar heroes.
I was fortunate enough to watch that great race from the top floor of the clubhouse at Belmont Park in 1981 and seeing the video back brought the rush of excitement from the days when great horses did their talking on the racetrack rather than though their twitter accounts.
It was a treat to watch it and even if races from 32 years ago are before your time, they’re well worth a look.
Greatness never grows old.