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!"
CO-OWNER OF JOHN HENRY
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...."
The Sunset had primed John Henry to run in this Sunday's Budweiser Million at Chicago's Arlington Park, a 1-mile spin on the grass that the gelding had won by a desperate nose in 1981 and of which his rider at the time, Bill Shoemaker, said, "It was probably the greatest race I've ever ridden in."
There was still spring in John Henry's feet in this autumn of his racing life, so Sam was celebrating. "He did it again!" Rubin kept saying. "My, my, my! Wow, wow, wow!"
That John Henry began doing it at two and is still doing it at nine makes him the rarest of the rare. Nor did the Sunset seem the last bright flash from a dying bulb, but rather the latest evidence that this ill-bred castoff with the large barrel and plain head—who once sold for $1,100 as a yearling and was castrated to calm a vicious disposition—is still at the top of his game.
Charles Whittingham, the dean of California trainers, has grown weary of watching the horse race from one triumph to another in the past five years. Whittingham once had a chance to train John Henry, when the horse was still unknown, but he was so blasé about the prospect that Rubin sent him to McAnally. The horse has since made a career of haunting the trainer. In the Sunset, Whittingham had saddled four against him.
"I may not beat him," he said before the race, "but I've got him surrounded. Goddammit! He beat Balzac when I had him, and I've got 2-year-olds in the barn sired by Balzac and John Henry's still running! I've finished on his ass more than anybody." When Load the Cannons chased him home in the Sunset, it was the 10th time in five years that one of Whittingham's horses had finished second to John Henry in a major stake.
"They say he's nine years old," Whittingham said, "but he's better now than when he was four or five. I've never seen him better than he is now. The sonofabitches I have chasing him won't even live to be nine!"
If this is so, if John Henry is better now than he ever has been, then historically he has no peer. There have been innumerable good and great geldings in the annals of the American turf, but not one of the truly great ones—not Exterminator, not Armed, not Kelso, not Forego—was still whipping first-rate horses in major stakes at so advanced an age.
"I've never seen a horse with such determination," says Whittingham, who started his training career in 1934. "He's always running at you."
Which makes all the more remarkable the tale of John Henry's roots, his blue-collar upbringing. "He came up from the ghetto," says McAnally. "He's a storybook horse." In fact, no one grew up rich in the John Henry crew, and everyone has a story.
Dorothy and Sam Rubin were friends when they were growing up poor in New York City. They're married now, but that didn't happen until April 1, 1977, just seven weeks before John Henry broke his maiden. They didn't know John Henry then. To be sure, it had been a long time since they had first known each other.
The way it went was this: Sam's first wife, Lillian, was a first cousin of Courtney Levinson, an accountant who married Dorothy. Sam and Courtney were best friends. The two couples were close. Dorothy used to bounce Sam and Lillian's little girl, Phyllis, on her knee. In 1942, however, the Rubins and the Levinsons had a falling-out over money Sam owed Courtney—Sam was a big gambler then, and he always owed money—and the couples never spoke again.
Courtney died in 1972, and Lil died four years later. Sam and Dorothy hadn't seen one another for 35 years when, after a phone call from Sam, they met in the lobby of the Doral Beach Hotel in Miami Beach in October 1976. Sam put his arms around Dorothy and kissed her, and there was applause from the strangers who had stopped to watch them.
"We looked at each other and cried," says Sam. They were married six months later.
And John Henry? Well, he grew up poor in Kentucky. Or, at least, he was born to common folk down there, at the Golden Chance Farm of Verna Lehmann, but there was a touch of wild romance in his past, too, beginning with Princequillo. Princequillo's dam, Cosquilla, was carrying him on a farm in France as the German armies were preparing to invade in 1939. War was imminent. So the pregnant mare was dispatched to Ireland, where she dropped her foal in 1940. Later, they loaded him into the hold of a cargo ship and sent him sailing, through submarine-infested waters, to America. He disembarked here in 1942—an orphan of the war, of sorts.
On these shores Princequillo made his enduring mark, first as a racehorse and later as one of the greatest sires in American history. He started off running in cheap claiming races, but by the end of 1943 he had improved so much that he was acclaimed the best long-distance runner in America. Retired to stud, Princequillo became a whirlwind. He sired sound horses, like Round Table, with stamina and speed.
And some tough customers, too. Prince Blessed was one. He was beautifully bred," by Princequillo out of Dog Blessed, the dam of America's champion sprinter of 1956 and '57, Decathlon, but he also turned out to be a nasty little rogue to work around. Prince Blessed became a stakes winner, but he never chopped much hardwood as a sire.
He did beget Ole Bob Bowers. He was a mean-spirited cuss, too, and even less of a racehorse. Ole Bob ended up winning the Tanforan Handicap, but not much else. He was eventually sold as a stallion for $900, but not before Lehmann had bred him to Once Double, a nondescript producer herself. She dropped her foal in March 1975, and he wasn't much to look at when he got to his feet. He was very straight in the knees, almost back at the joint, a structural defect that predisposes a horse toward breaking down.
"Our farm manager and our veterinarian said he could break down or just wouldn't race," Lehmann recalls.
So she entered him in a cheap winter sale at Keeneland. The colt had apparently banged his head in his stall, ripping the skin off his forehead, and by the time he was led into the ring, he was a mess. "He looked like a drowned rat with blood running off his forehead," owner and trainer John Callaway recalls. He bid $500 anyway. Someone bid $1,000. Callaway went to $1,100. Sold!
"I never did put a saddle on him," Callaway says. "The older he got, the more calf-kneed he became. I had a new vet and he kept advising me to get rid of the horse. Didn't think he'd stand training." Worse, like his father and grandfather, the colt was a little crazy.
"I really thought he was slightly retarded," Callaway says. "He did weird things. He was hard on the stall. He was hard on buckets and tubs. He'd like to tear them off the wall and stomp on them. He was good at that."
Callaway named the colt John Henry, after the steel-drivin' man of West Virginia legend. "That's the only thing I did well about him," Callaway says. Taking his veterinarian's advice, he entered John Henry in the January sale at Keeneland in 1977, and there horse trader Harold Snowden Jr. took him for $2,200. "He was just kind of a dumpy-looking 2-year-old," Snowden says.
That was the good part. The colt got so rank that Snowden had him castrated in March. He then sold him for $7,500 to horsewoman Akiko McVarish, but McVarish's veterinarian voided the sale after taking one look at the horse. In May, searching for a 2-year-old prospect to race in the Lafayette Futurity at Evangeline Downs, Louisiana owners Colleen Madere, Dortha Lingo and Dortha's son, John, visited Snowden's barn at Keeneland with their trainer, Phil Marino. Snowden showed them John Henry.
"I'll never forget it," John Lingo says. "They had a 55-gallon drum of molasses lying there to keep the front of his stall from falling out. He had kicked it so hard that the whole wall would swing away. I fell in love with him. I liked his spunk." Marino jumped on the horse and worked him half a mile. Coming back, he announced, "He's the best-movin' horse I've ever been on."
They gave Snowden $7,500 for John Henry, and off they went to prepare for the Lafayette Futurity. That fall he came roaring off the pace to win the $86,450 race by a head. He ran nine more times along the bayous, but his form fell off and he was put in claiming races. He never won again in Louisiana. In March 1978, his owners called Snowden, looking to swap John Henry for some 2-year-olds.
Colleen Madere, who groomed poodles for a living, made the call. Snowden offered her Pay the Way, a colt, and Separation Gap, a filly, and she agreed to the trade. So Snowden ended up owning John Henry for the third time. "I started trying to sell him again," Snowden says. "I tried everybody."
That spring Rubin was looking to buy a racehorse. By then he had become a millionaire in the bicycle business. Early one morning in May, Sam told Dorothy. "I'm going to take $150,000 and I'm going to buy one or two $25,000, $50,000 horses, use the rest for expenses, and we're going to have some fun. When I blow the $150,000, I'll be finished with owning horses."
"That's fine with me," said Dorothy. They went to Aqueduct that day and ran into Sam's old friend Joe Taub, president of the New Jersey Nets. Sam asked Taub. "You know anybody who's got a good $25,000, $50,000 horse around they want to sell?"
"Not really. Sam. but if I hear of anything I'll send him over," Taub said.
Sam and Dorothy weren't even in their seats when Jimmy Ferrara, a horse agent, came up to them and said, "I was talking to Joe Taub and he says you're interested in buying one or two horses." Sam said that was so. Ferrara told them about Snowden's gelding.
"What does he want for him?" Sam asked.
"He wants $25,000," said Ferrara.
Sight unseen, Rubin bought the 3-year-old John Henry. That was risky, to be sure, but Rubin had been gambling most of his life. Born on the Lower East Side, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, he grew up scrounging to survive. "We used to steal coal off the trucks," he says. "We used to steal fruit and vegetables off the stands on the corners. A good beginning. I delivered groceries. I sold newspapers on the subways. I had my brains knocked out at Yankee Stadium selling banners and things. Kids tried to rob me."
Rubin quit high school when he was 16, inspired by a movie called The Wolf of Wall Street, and he set out to make his fortune. "Unfortunately, they didn't need any more wolves in the market," he says. "So I got a job driving a laundry wagon. I drove the fastest horse-and-wagon in the Bronx. I was on the ASPCA's most-wanted list for two years. We had races around the block."
Rubin also worked as a part-time clerk in the post office to help supplement his mother's income as a knitter. He was 20. He was already betting with bookies on games—football, baseball, basketball—but then he got into horses. The first horse he ever bet on paid $82. One afternoon he picked a $218 winner at the old Empire City Racetrack in Yonkers, N.Y. and brought home $4,000. That sank the hook.
"That was my undoing," says Rubin. "I couldn't bet small anymore."
His undoing was long and painful. "I always overbet," he says. "I was never satisfied betting what I could afford." In the late '40s, when Rubin owned a hand laundry, he once overbet with a bookmaker and dropped $11,000.
"So I borrowed $6,000 from my mother, may she rest in peace, and sold my hand laundry for $5,000. One of the biggest bookmakers in New York used to handle my action through a runner. The runner found out I'd borrowed from my mother and sold my business and he couldn't get over it. He told his principals, and they came to my house. I thought they were going to kill me."
"Did you sell your laundry?" one bookmaker asked. "And borrow $6,000 from your mother?"
Rubin told them this was true.
"Why did you do that?" the bookmaker asked.
"To pay off my gambling debt." Sam replied.
"Why didn't you come and tell us?" the bookmaker asked. "We'd have worked out payments. What about your wife?" That was Lil.
"I'll make it up to her," said Rubin. "In affection."
"Some kind of nut like you I've never met," the bookmaker told him. He bought back Rubin's hand laundry for him the very next day, but Sam kept on betting—on games, on craps, on horses. He went into the toy business, selling Howdy Doody puppets, and in the early 1950s became a traveling bicycle salesman, journeying only to cities with racetracks.
"I was a complete degenerate," he says. "On Sunday I would bet 14 football games and lose 12 and win two. At $3,000, $5,000 a crack. A lot of money I've got to get up on Monday morning. I'd get advances from the factories I represented. But I was an astronomical earner and I always paid."
Lil put up with this for years and years. One day Rubin stopped betting with the books. He doesn't know why. "It just came over me," he says. It was a Sunday morning about 18 years ago.
"You feeling well, Sam?" Lil asked. "You're not making any phone calls."
"Do I have to?" he said.
"You always seem to have to," said Lil.
"Today I don't have to," he said.
He simply decided to quit. "We woke up on Monday morning and we were both crying," he says. "I had no flame to walk into, no fright in me, no fear of where I was going to get the money to pay off the bookmakers. God, what a feeling!"
Free of the books, Rubin began accumulating wealth as a bicycle salesman, and with a small slice of it he made out the $25,000 check to Snowden for John Henry. Not knowing what they had, they gave the horse to trainer Bobby Donato, a retired Philadelphia cop with a small stable.
"He was a nice, solid little horse," Donato says now. Donato ran John Henry as a $25,000 claimer on the dirt at Aqueduct, and he won by 2½ lengths. As he came off the track, Donato said to Rubin, "You know, this horse seems to have a grass foot. I'm going to run him on the grass."
So Donato wheeled him back two weeks later at 1[1/16] miles on the grass at Belmont Park, in a race in which he could have been claimed for $35,000. John Henry won by 14 lengths in 1:41⅗ fast time. That was the last time he ran for a claiming tag.
John Henry finished the year with six victories in 19 starts and earnings of $120,319, including his second stakes win on the grass, the $20,000 Chocolatetown Handicap at Penn National. One of the prizes was a silver bowl filled with Hershey chocolate kisses, and Rubin, a chocoholic, devoured them all.
Donato has a picture of the finish of that race hanging above the desk in his spare office in Barn 7 at Aqueduct. "You can see his action," Donato says. "He just glided on the turf." The Chocolate-town was Donato's last race as the trainer of the horse. "He was wonderful with him," Rubin says, "but sometimes you get a gut feeling that you have to change."
Rubin gave John Henry to trainer V.J. (Lefty) Nickerson, who runs a big racing stable in New York. "Mr. Rubin told me he was a vicious little critter," Nickerson says, "but that wasn't so when I got him. He'd just come off the farm and maybe he'd sweetened up. He was a very gentle horse."
Nickerson had John Henry for most of 1979, when he won four of 11 races and $129,864, but it took the horse until late summer to find his gait. He won two stiff allowance races on the grass in New York, in one of which he beat the champion filly Waya. That autumn the man who runs the binocular concession at the New York tracks, Cohen Johnson, advised Rubin to send John Henry to California. There was all that winter grass racing out there, and big purses to boot.
"I says to myself," recalls Rubin, " 'You know, Sam, this man is right.' "
One afternoon at Belmont he approached Whittingham, who was visiting in the East, and asked Charlie to take John Henry with him back to Santa Anita. Whittingham hesitated, finally saying, "If you want to send him out, I'll see if I can make room." As Rubin walked away, the trainer turned to Sandy Hirsch, a zestful horseplayer and the wife of trainer Buddy Hirsch, and said, "Who the hell is John Henry?"
"He's a nice little horse who's won a couple of races around here," said Sandy.
But Rubin, a proud man, thought Whittingham too nonchalant, and so he looked elsewhere for a trainer. Nickerson suggested his old friend McAnally. McAnally had grown up in an orphanage in Covington, Ky. and had learned the business under his uncle, trainer Reggie Cornell, for whom he helped condition the legendary stretch runner Silky Sullivan. A patient, solid horseman, McAnally was still looking, at age 47, for his first Hall of Fame racehorse.
That fall he found him. Under McAnally, John Henry blossomed in the West Coast sun. After saddling him for a first and two seconds in California to close out his 1979 campaign, McAnally sent him out on New Year's Day 1980 for the San Gabriel Handicap on the Santa Anita turf course. John Henry won by a head. Then he won four more rich grass races in succession, including the San Luis Rey Handicap at Santa Anita—in which he scorched over the 1½ miles in 2:23 flat to equal the course record—the San Juan Capistrano at 1¾ miles and the 1½-mile Hollywood Invitational.
The streak stamped John Henry as the best grass horse in America. In the four seasons since he won that San Gabriel, he has dominated grass racing in this country. He has won the Oak Tree Invitational and the Hollywood Invitational, two of the biggest turf races in this country, three times each, and at the age of six, in 1981, he won two of this country's most important din races, the Santa Anita Handicap and the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont.
The Arlington Million that year was a doozy, one of those races John Henry turned into a showcase for himself, as he had the 1980 Oak Tree, advertising his grit and demonstrating what Jimmy Kilroe, the esteemed handicapper for Santa Anita, meant when he recently said of the old horse, "He's keen for the game."
In the 1980 Oak Tree, the climax and centerpiece of a laborious 12-race campaign that had begun with that string of grass victories, John Henry was in trouble most of the way. At one crucial point coming off the last turn, says his rider, Laffit Pincay Jr., he was "shuffled back from fifth to 10th." Desperate, Pincay wheeled him to the outside, found a ray of light between horses and drove John Henry toward it. The gelding fairly pounced through the breach and won in a flourish, by a length and a half.
"An unbelievable move," Pincay says. "One of the most impressive moves I've ever seen a good horse make." That race clinched John Henry's first Eclipse Award, the industry's Oscar, as American grass champion of 1980. If that seemed accolade enough for an off-bred, calf-kneed $1,100 yearling with a bad temper, it was but a prelude to 1981. The whole year wheeled around the last quarter mile of the Million.
The turf was soft, not to John Henry's liking, and he left the gate floundering like a newborn foal. "It took him three-eighths of a mile to get his feet under him," Shoemaker says. "But he finally got ahold of it." John Henry moved up on the inside around the far turn, with Shoemaker looking for a hole. Unable to find one, he finally swung out and began his charge at front-running The Bart through the stretch.
Slowly, John Henry closed on The Bart, each stride whittling into his lead. It shrank to a length. Half a length. A neck. A head. Suddenly John Henry was bobbing nose and nose with The Bart. At the wire, John Henry won by a whisker. It had been one of the most rousing finishes in memory.
Rubin recalls the poignant drama that ensued. The two men who owned The Bart jumped up, exclaiming. "We won! We won!" and headed for the winner's circle. After the photo was posted, a jubilant Rubin passed them on his way to the winner's circle. "They were crying," Rubin says. "To them it was worth millions. They had a colt who could breed. To us it was just a purse. I felt complete despair. I wish I hadn't seen them."
That fall John Henry revealed more dramatically than ever that extraordinary dimension that sets him apart from the others, the quality that Whittingham still marvels at today. In the Oak Tree, after John Henry set the pace for most of the mile and a half, Spence Bay raced past him in midstretch and went half a length in front. "I thought Spence Bay was going to win by two or three lengths." Shoemaker says. But John Henry dug in and battled back, and got up in the last two jumps to win it by a neck.
It was a rare, surpassing performance in a season in which John Henry won eight of 10 races and a record $1,798,030. Three Eclipse Awards were his: Horse of the Year, Best Older Horse, Best Grass Horse. For one year, this graduate of Evangeline Downs owned the game. As, amazingly, he could yet own 1984.
After two years in which John Henry was hampered by injuries—a wrenched ankle in 1982, a pulled hip muscle in 1983—the consensus was that Pappy, as exercise rider Lewis Cenicola calls him, was surely nearing the end of the tether.
Rubin laughs at that. "Sam, how long do you intend to run John Henry?" he was asked awhile back.
"We hope till his Bar Mitzvah," said Rubin. "By the way, don't tell him. He doesn't know he's a Jewish horse."
Certainly no one told the horse that he was nine this year. He had won two of five coming to the Sunset. On May 6 he won the Golden Gate Handicap by two lengths and raced the 1‚Öú miles in 2:13 flat, shattering the track record by three-fifths of a second. Then he won his third Hollywood Invitational.
Through it all, of course, the Rubins have had themselves a high time of it. This summer they were lounging in front of their cabana on a topless beach in Monte Carlo, vacationing under the Mediterranean sun. "I'm delirious," Sam said. "The ease with which we live our lives. The friends we have. The good fortune. Sometimes we look up together and say, 'Somewhere Courtney and Lillian are singing and dancing.' Sometimes I wonder whether the good Lord isn't writing the scenario."
After leaving the winner's circle following the Sunset, Sam was walking with Dorothy through the clubhouse at Hollywood Park. He was bouncing as he walked, and singing again.
What a day this has been,
What a rare mood I'm in,
Why it's almost like being
Hey, Ma, look at Sam. Hey. Lil, look at him now.