Native Dancer: The Nearly Perfect Grey Ghost of Sagamore
In the long and colorful history of Thoroughbred racing there’s a wealth of heartwarming stories, but few can match the exhilarating rags-to-riches saga of John Henry.
In a career that spanned 1977 to 1984, the gallant gelding raced 83 times and developed from a claimer into an immensely popular two-time Horse of the Year. He won 17 Grade 1 stakes during eight years of racing that saw him rise from a $1,100 yearling purchase to a horse that won 39 races and set the sport’s all-time earnings record (since surpassed) of $6,597,947 - every penny of it before the introduction of the Breeders’ Cup and its million-dollar purses.
He raced at 19 different tracks – including one in Japan – and became the most beloved horse of his era in a career that was nothing short of legendary.
For a future champion and Hall of Famer, John Henry rose from incredibly humble roots.
He was a son of Ole Bob Bowers, an obscure sire who once sold for $900. His son out of the Double Jay mare Once Double seemed equally pedestrian.
Aside from his bargain basement pedigree, John Henry had conformation issues and was undersized. There was little to like about him when he came into the sales ring as a yearling at the 1976 Keeneland January mixed sale, especially since he had blood on his forehead after banging his head in his stall.
John Callaway wound up paying a mere $1,100 for a horse that, in the words he later told Sports Illustrated, “looked like a drowned rat with blood running off his forehead.”
Callaway had the colt for a short period of time, but saw enough of the rambunctiousness in him to name the horse John Henry in honor of the fabled “steel-driving man.” Tales were told that young John Henry, the horse, would rip steel feed and water buckets off the wall of his stall and stomp them flat.
Callaway eventually entered the unraced John Henry in another sale where he was purchased by Harold Snowden Jr. for $2,200. Neither seller nor buyer had the slightest clue of the greatness destined for the horse.
“When I sold him, it was 10 degrees below zero and there was nobody there,” Callaway said in an interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader during the 1980s. “No one dreamed he’d have ability. I laugh. But I want to cry.”
John Henry was eventually gelded in a bid to temper his cantankerous behavior and he made his racing debut on May 20, 1977, when he won a four-furlong maiden race at Jefferson Downs.
He lost his next three starts, but then won an allowance race at Evangeline Downs and two races later he captured the Lafayette Futurity. That stakes win, though, would be followed by a prolonged losing streak that reached 10 straight starts.
Everything changed, however, when he was sold sight unseen in May 1978 for $25,000 to Sam Rubin, who operated under the table name of Dotsam Stable, which comprised the first names of Rubin and his wife, Dorothy.
John Henry was turned over to trainer Robert Donato. He made his first start for Rubin on May 21, 1978, and paid a quick dividend when he took a $25,000 claiming race at Aqueduct.
Shortly after that, Donato made one of the most astute decisions in racing history. Donato believed John Henry had a future on turf and entered him a $35,000 claimer on grass at Belmont Park.
There were no takers that day, thankfully for Rubin and Donato, as John Henry romped to a 14-length victory.
He would never be seen in a claiming race again.
He won an allowance race in next start and soon was racing in grass stakes. In his fourth try at a stakes event on turf, he demolished eight rivals by 12 lengths in the Grade 3 Round Table Handicap at Arlington Park.
The legend was starting to grow.
In 1979, John Henry was transferred to trainer V.J. “Lefty” Nickerson and later that year he was shipped out to California and turned over to trainer Ron McAnally. Under McAnally’s care, a good horse blossomed into a great one. John Henry had two seconds and a win in his first three starts for McAnally and then reeled off six straight wins, all of them in graded stakes and three of them in Grade 1s.
He returned to New York in the fall of 1980 and won the Grade 3 Brighton Beach Handicap for Nickerson. In a testament to his versatility, John Henry returned to dirt in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park and finished second to 1980 Belmont Stakes winner Temperence Hill as a 3-5 favorite.
In recognition of his accomplishments, John Henry was named the champion turf male of 1980 and received the first of seven Eclipse Awards (including two Horse of the Year titles).
The following year, 1981, was arguably John Henry’s best. At the age of 6, he started 10 times, won eight races, including six times in Grade 1 stakes. Foremost among the Grade 1 efforts was a victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup when he prevailed by a head over another ex-claimer, Peat Moss, in classic duel to the finish line. Relaxing, the champion older female of 1981, was third that day.
Yet it was John Henry’s one ungraded victory in 1981 that cemented his reputation as a folk hero even bigger than his fictional namesake.
The inaugural Arlington Million was a national televised showcase for John Henry against international competition. It was the United States versus the world, and John Henry proved to be the All-American hero as he engaged in a furious stretch duel with The Bart and prevailed by a nose.
At year’s end, John Henry was rewarded with Horse of the Year laurels, becoming the first unanimous recipient of the award.
As time passed, John Henry continued to build his fame and fan base. Each of his races was a blockbuster event.
His 7-year-old campaign featured a second triumph in the Santa Anita Handicap and the second of his three victories in the Oak Tree Invitational.
At 8, he raced only five times and won the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup.
As John Henry turned 9 in 1984, racing entered a pivotal year. The Breeders’ Cup was scheduled to debut in November at Hollywood Park and the industry was hopeful that its biggest star would make the new series a smashing success.
The obstacle was that because of his obscure breeding John Henry was not nominated to the Breeders’ Cup and it would cost Rubin $400,000 to supplement him to the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Turf.
John Henry did his part to put racing in the national headlines that year as the veteran runner put together a sensational campaign.
After losses in the Santa Anita Handicap and San Luis Rey, John Henry won three of his next four races and then won his second Arlington Million, beating a field that included Royal Heroine, who would later win the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Mile, and 1982 Kentucky Derby winner Gato del Sol.
John Henry won the Grade 1 Turf Classic at Belmont, and was then pointed to the $400,000 Ballantine’s Scotch Classic at the Meadowlands in what loomed as the race that could propel him to the Breeders’ Cup.
John Henry won the Ballantine's by 2 ¾ lengths, pocketing an extra $500,000 in bonus money for winning the Turf Classic and Ballantine’s, and afterwards Rubin reluctantly agreed to make an initial payment of $133,000 to run John Henry in the Breeders’ Cup.
But it never happened.
John Henry suffered strained ligament in his left foreleg and his season was over.
In a sign of the deep respect for him, even after the spectacle of the Breeders’ Cup, 1984 Horse of the Year honors went to the gelding, who was not at Hollywood Park for the seven-race series.
Rubin hoped to return John Henry to the races at 10 but the grand gelding suffered a tendon injury in a workout. Rubin also eyed a comeback in 1986, and said he would donate all of the horse’s earnings to charity. But once again John Henry was unable to handle the physical toll of racing and was retired before attempting another race.
Rubin sent John Henry to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, and the gelding spent the rest of his life there.
In retirement, the gelding was treated like royalty, and each year thousands of visitors would come to see him.
The final chapter in his illustrious life came in 2007. Kidney problems and dehydration left him in failing health and on Oct. 8 he was euthanized at the age of 32.
"Everywhere he raced, his presence doubled the size of a normal race track crowd. He did so much for racing, even after he retired, that he will be impossible to replace. He will be sorely missed but forever in our hearts," said jockey Chris McCarron, who rode John Henry in the gelding’s final 14 races, at the time of the great champion’s death.
Now, 39 years after his final race, the memories of John Henry still burn brightly in the minds of longtime racing fans, who will never forget the great thrills he provided year after year after year.
To them, the gelding who rose from rags to riches will always be the people’s champion.
Note: This story was originally published in 2013 and has been updated.
- In 1990, both John Henry and his trainer, Ron McAnally, entered the Racing Hall of Fame.
- John Henry is the only two-time winner of the Arlington Million.
- In the Blood-Horse’s ranking of the best horses in the 20th Century, John Henry placed 23rd.
- There are statues honoring John Henry at Arlington Park, Santa Anita Park, and the Kentucky Horse Park.