Ron McAnally: The Making of a Masterful Horseman

Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally, who helped legendary John Henry become a two-time Horse of the Year and a Hall of Famer.

Ron McAnally remembers one element above all others from the formative years he spent at the Covington Protestant Children’s Home, an orphanage in northern Kentucky. He will never forget the view.

“They tell me I used to sit at the window and stare for hours,” he said. “I wouldn’t talk to anybody.”

McAnally was at the tender age of 5 when he and his four siblings were sent to the home following the death of their mother. He sought comfort wherever he could find it, even at a window.

“It was a beautiful area overlooking the city of Cincinnati. You would see gorgeous homes on the Ohio River,” he remembered during a phone interview.

He spoke matter-of-factly about his time at the orphanage, with no sadness, no bitterness. He lived there until he was a teenager, and the staff instilled in him values that would lead to a Hall of Fame training career that would far exceed any daydream he experienced as he enjoyed the view.

“I learned discipline,” he said. “You had to be quiet. You had to sit there and not say a word until you were spoken to.”

At the same time, his career makes clear that he also learned the value of a gentle touch. His kind handling of irascible John Henry – notorious for stomping steel buckets – brought out the best in that gelding after previous trainers found him almost impossible to manage.

John Henry entered McAnally’s barn at age 4 having earned $239,613 and enjoyed modest success. McAnally recalled that Lefty Nickerson, the previous trainer, described him as “a decent horse but nothing real special.”

John Henry responded to McAnally’s superb care – not to mention an endless stream of treats – by developing into one of the most admirable racehorses in history. He won 27 of 45 starts for his new trainer and earned a whopping $6,358,334 for owner Sam Rubin, who purchased him for $25,000. John Henry was a two-time winner of the Arlington Million, in 1981 and 1984.

He swept seven Eclipse Awards, emerging as Horse of the Year in 1981 and 1984 while being honored four times as a champion turf male and one time as the top older male.

McAnally’s secret?

“I gave him carrots and sugar and tried to treat him as best I could,” he said.

McAnally added to his reputation with the success he enjoyed after bringing horses over from South America.

“They raise them well in South America because they have the space to do it,” said McAnally, praising the soundness of the horses he received from there.

Most prominent among them were Bayakoa and Paseana, who joined McAnally and John Henry in reaching the Racing and Hall of Fame. McAnally was inducted in 1990.

Bayakoa took the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in 1989 and scored a repeat Distaff victory the next season. She received the Eclipse Award as the outstanding older female both years. Paseana came along two years later to win the 1992 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. She, too, was honored as the outstanding older female for consecutive seasons in 1992 and 1993, a testament to McAnally’s ability to keep horses in top form for extended periods.

McAnally was saluted with Eclipse Awards as the outstanding trainer in North America in 1981, 1991 and 1992. He said his methods include constant experimentation as he tries to find what is best for every horse.

“Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but you keep working with them,” he said. “Horses are like children. They are all individuals.”

McAnally, 87, has no intention of retiring. As he is fond of telling younger trainers, “If you love what you are doing, it is not a job.”

Fun Facts

  • Served in Air Force
  • Attended University of Cincinnati for two years, studying electrical engineering
  • Became first trainer to win a $1 million race, when John Henry took inaugural running of Arlington Million on Aug. 30, 1981
  • Stable earnings peaked at $8,388,214 in 1991, boosted by Tight Spot’s victory in Arlington Million
  • Cites Del Mar as favorite racing venue, noting relaxed atmosphere

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