As John Henry was paraded in the paddock before last Saturday's Turf Classic at Belmont Park, an eclectic mix of New York limo riders and subway straphangers showered him with love. "Isn't he something," exclaimed a pretty young woman in a frilly party dress. "Go get 'em, Johnny!" yelled a guy in a T shirt and Mets cap who was toting a beer.
New Yorkers love a star, and most of the 24,374 who came to the track on a mild, sunny afternoon figured old John might need the encouragement. A fast lady name of All Along had just arrived from France, and the word was she looked fitter than a year ago when, in the space of 41 days, she won Longchamps' Arc de Triomphe and three of the most prestigious North American turf races, Canada's Rothman International, the Turf Classic (by almost nine lengths) and the Washington, D.C. International. Never mind that the '83 Horse of the Year hadn't raced in 10 months. "She's ready," said the 5-year-old mare's trainer, Patrick-Louis Biancone. "It's true. She's worked better than last year."
But John Henry was ready, too. On Friday morning the 9-year-old gelding tore through a quarter mile in under 24 seconds even though exercise rider Lewis Cenicola fought to hold him back. In the paddock Saturday, there was a fury in his clipped step. And when the gates flew open, he burst forth with the bravado of a headstrong teenager. "He just went right to the lead and put his ears up," said his jockey, Chris McCarron. "I didn't take him there, he did." Atypically, John Henry led wire to wire, taking the field out slowly—48[4/5] at the half mile—and having plenty left to win in 2:25⅕ just two-fifths of a second off Secretariat's 1973 record for a mile and a half on Belmont's Widener Turf Course.
But while always in front, John Henry was never alone. Just off his shoulder was a horse hopefully named Win, another local favorite. "We knew the New York horse would have early speed," said John Henry's trainer, Ron McAnally, "but that was some race for him, to hang on like that." Hang on, indeed. Win matched John Henry's stride through the far turn; at one point the two were nose-bobbing with each other. They pulled away from the field on the turn and came pounding home, blazing the last quarter mile in 23⅗ a second and two-fifths faster than John Henry's first quarter. Win never faltered but lost by a neck.
September 30, 1984
It isn't stretching reality to see this as a symbolic race, Win chugging along in the old guy's shadow. "He's a poor man's John Henry," is the way Win's trainer and part owner, Sally Bailie, puts it. Both horses have poor-boy roots. Win, too, was a rambunctious colt of little promise who was gelded for his temperament. Like John Henry, Win came cheaply: The $8,000 Bailie paid for him two years ago makes the $25,000 that Sam Rubin put up for John Henry in 1978 look extravagant. And Win is owned and run by salt-of-the-earth horse fans not unlike Sam and Dorothy Rubin (SI, Aug. 27, 1984). Last year Bailie, one of New York's most highly regarded trainers, sold two one-third shares of her horse to a couple of track junkies: Fred Ephraim, a professor of psychology at Adelphi University who is Win's owner of record, and Paul Cornman, who considers himself little more than a professional horseplayer—he spends his days making a series of $200 bets at, well, his office.
Finally, again like John Henry, Win is coming into his own as he approaches middle age. He's four and has four wins and three places in 10 starts this year; Saturday's $137,555 purse—John Henry won $375,150—brought his total winnings to $646,438. In the risky speculation that John Henry will get old and creaky one day. Win is the heir apparent.
Win gave John Henry the challenge that All Along was supposed to. The mare ran the same race that she did last year, but this time for only 10 furlongs. She settled into fourth early, staying at the rear of the lead pack. She was third at the quarter pole, but as Win and John Henry pulled away, All Along faded; the fast-closing Majesty's Prince came from last at the mile to finish third. "I'm really a little baffled." said Walter Swinburn, All Along's Irish-born rider, who was aboard for all her '83 triumphs. "My horse didn't produce any kick. The long layoff had to have something to do with it, but I'm not sure what."
Swinburn's wonder was much like the second-guessing that kept the barns abuzz all week. Biancone put All Along through her usual rigorous workouts. She did seven furlongs in 1:26[1/5] on Thursday and then returned for a strong mile Friday. In contrast, John Henry rested each day after his brief morning works. "The only way to train horses is to put the horse out of the stall," Biancone said. "It's the way we do it in Europe, we put them out hard every day." European horses race less frequently than do American horses, European trainers believing that by keeping horses fit, they'll be ready to run at all times. McAnally had doubts about Biancone's tactics. "I can't believe what he's doing," he said. "It's extraordinary. We'd walk her more, rest her."
Of course, there are no miracle fitness programs, and when the race was over, one piece of old horse sense rang true: Only competition gives a horse the edge needed to win at distance. John Henry, a millionaire five times over, epitomizes another truism: It's fun to run all the way to the bank.