Jockey Fernando Toro was almost euphoric. There he was, just gliding along in front on a gifted 4-year-old filly named Royal Heroine, as they swept off the turn for home and headed into the straight in Sunday's 1-mile Budweiser-Arlington Million on the grass at Chicago's Arlington Park. Nijinsky's Secret had already made a run at her, edging to within half a length through the turn, but suddenly Royal Heroine stretched her lead to a length, and Toro knew his filly had him beat. Meanwhile, the odds-on favorite, 9-year-old John Henry, wearing his distinctive shadow roll, was bounding along happily in third, and jockey Chris McCarron had himself a lapful of racehorse. This Toro did not know.
It had all gone so perfectly for Toro. The filly had broken beautifully, had made the lead with ease in the first run through the stretch, then had ho-hummed through a leisurely half-mile in 48[2/5] seconds, the mile in 1:37⅖ and as they straightened out for home he sensed, not yet having even asked her to run—"She just took off," he said later—that perhaps the race was his. He figured that all that lay between him and the $600,000 first prize, of which 10% would be his, was a mere 400 yards of weeds and sunshine.
Then Toro heard something behind his right shoulder. It was the sound of hoofbeats. "I looked over and just took a peek," he said, "and I saw that shadow roll. I thought that's him again!"
Oh yes, indeed, it was the old horse again, slipping through the narrow opening created as the tiring Nijinsky's Secret drifted out. As the 39,053 spectators saw that move and sent up a sudden roar, John Henry raced into the clear and took aim at the leader. He gained slowly but relentlessly on her, whittling away until he came to her throat at the eighth pole.
September 2, 1984
Toro rode with a fury. He slashed Royal Heroine with his whip. "My filly was running hard," he said. "She tried to go with him." Now McCarron went to the whip, striking John Henry once as he made the lead. As they neared the 16th pole, Royal Heroine began to shorten stride. "I could feel her start to get tired," Toro said. "But she gave me everything she had."
It was not enough. The horse that his Mexican groom, Jose Mercado, calls El Viejo—The Old One—drew off in the final yards to win by a commanding 1¾ lengths. His time of 2:01[2/5] was well off the track record of 1:58⅘ but he caught and crushed Nijinsky's Secret and the filly by smoking them through the final quarter-mile in 23[3/5] seconds. Game to the end, Royal Heroine was second, three lengths in front of 1982 Kentucky Derby-winner, Gato del Sol.
The victory, John Henry's third in a major grass race this year, sent his lifetime earnings to $5,482,797—no other thoroughbred has won even $3 million—and added to his legend. That he has reached so advanced an age yet consistently tow-ropes much younger horses, usually collaring them in the stretch and outgaming them to the wire, is unprecedented in the annals of the sport.
"He's the greatest thing that's ever happened to horse racing," says John Gosden, the trainer of Royal Heroine and one of California's most respected horsemen. "He's now beyond being a horse. I can tell you that he's known all over Europe by anybody who knows anything about horse racing. If you're going to get beat, get beat by an institution."
The institution came to this Million as fit as a racehorse can be, beautifully managed and trained by his conditioner, Ron McAnally. After his spirited victory in the Sunset Handicap at Hollywood Park on July 23, McAnally shipped him to Del Mar, north of San Diego. In his final major work leading to the Million, McAnally put McCarron aboard and told him to let the old horse bounce. He rock-'n'-rolled through a lively mile in 1:35⅖ by McAnally's watch, and came back growing horns and snorting fire. John Henry flew to Chicago the next day.
"That work at Del Mar was super," McAnally said. "His action was artistry in motion. He's coming to the race great. He's bright, he's alert. If it was any other horse but him, I'd feel pressure, but not with John.... Lately, more than ever, he seems to be running his own kind of race. You can't rush him. He knows why he's out there and what he has to do. He makes his own moves. I know he'll give 100 percent."
That was among the very few knowns in the Million. There were five European horses in the race—Crystal Glitters, Dahar, Mourjane, Muscatite and Hot Touch—and the consensus was that Glitters was the best. But just how he and the others would perform, after the long trip across the Atlantic and in unfamiliar surroundings, made mysteries of all of them.
The U.S. had six fur coats (there was one Canadian horse, Nijinsky's Secret): John Henry, Desert Wine, Gato del Sol, Jack Slade, Majesty's Prince and the filly. Desert Wine had recently been syndicated for $13 million, off three smashing victories on the dirt this year, but he was third in his last start on the grass at Del Mar. Gato del Sol was winless in six tries this year. Majesty's Prince was fond of soft grass courses, but Arlington's was firm. Jack Slade, a hometown boy, had won but two small grass stakes at Arlington this summer. Of the rest, a bit more was known. Royal Heroine had raced and trained superbly for Gosden this year, winning two grass stakes at Hollywood Park, and the only question was whether she could get the route. Nijinsky's Secret, a genuine racehorse, had won four of five on the turf this year.
"He's all set," said Charles Whittingham, the trainer of Gato del Sol. "Now it's all in the hands of a guy with a size three hat and a size one shoe."
It's no wonder that John Henry was $1.10 to $1 on the tote. Sam Rubin, who owns the gelding with his wife, Dorothy, has a song for all occasions, and he was asked in the paddock what the tune of the day was. To It Had To Be You, he crooned, "It has to be me, it has to be me!"
So it was. With the exception of Desert Wine's lackluster last place and the indifferent exertions of all the European horses—Hot Touch was best, finishing
fifth—the race unfolded without a real surprise. Oh, the filly wasn't supposed to be on the lead, but she inherited it early, and slowly, because no one else wanted it. Nijinsky's Secret tracked her, with John Henry stalking them both. Around the first turn, had he been a bear, he would have been growling.
"The only anxious moment I had was keeping him under control behind that slow pace," McCarron said. "He was really pulling hard on me. Very strong." Turning for home, he was trapped on the rail behind Royal Heroine and inside of Nijinsky's Secret. When Secret drifted, John scooted. And that was it.
The winner's circle was chaotic. It was packed with people, and John Henry entered it like the bull through the wall in the beer commercial. McCarron shouted, "Watch him! He wants to kick a little bit." People scattered.
"Whoa, Pappy!" exercise rider Lewis Cenicola yelled as John Henry spun him and Mercado in circles. At one point the old horse wheeled and drove Cenicola into a hedge.
"Watch him! Watch him!" McCarron repeated, as he helplessly turned. Whether here or during the race, the horse suffered a cut on his right hock. And there was another wound on his right hind heel. If those are minor matters, he will fly to New York soon for the rich Turf Classic at Belmont on Sept. 22 and then perhaps back to California for the $2 million turf championship in the Breeder's Cup series on Nov. 10. Since his sire wasn't nominated for the series, Rubin would have to put up a $400,000 supplementary fee to get John Henry into that—one heck of a big bet.
There are alternatives. "We'll give pony rides in San Diego," said Rubin. "He loves San Diego, and we'd get $5 a ride." Then Rubin got serious. "We can't believe this animal can do this at this age and we're grateful and I don't know what else to say," he said.
"Is there anything this horse can't do?" someone asked. Sam said: "Talk, thank God!"