12/21/2009 3:43PM

Larger Than Life


It is a symptom of any poor economy that the art world will suffer. Horse racing art, such as it is, figures to suffer even more than its mainstream cousin. A harsh critic might suggest that there are only a handful of truly accomplished equine artists plying their trade, producing truly significant painting, sculpture and photography. But without patronage--forever a function of the economy--the next generation of talent will have no soil in which to grow, while the established, respected practitioners will suffer from lack of commissioned work.

That is why it is so encouraging that on Saturday, at Santa Anita Park, a major piece of equine art will be unveiled. In ceremonies during the afternoon, Ron McAnally will officially pulled back the curtain on Nina Kaiser's lifesize bronze of John Henry. That means 15-2 hands and about a thousand pounds of bronze. There will be gasps, cheers and tears. And that will just be from me. Imagine the sound from the hundreds gathered in the immediate vicinity of the Kingsbury Fountain, where the statue is being installed, from the thousands at the track watching on video screens, and from those viewing at home who will be moved by personal memories of the great Thoroughbred and the sight of this permanent monument to his achievements.

John Henry I was fortunate to have been allowed a very early sneak peek of the John Henry in Kaiser's studio more than a year and a half ago. As embryos go, it was a mere dot on an ultrasound--or in this case a 12-inch clay model on Kaiser's workbench, which was eventually transformed into a thousand pounds of patina-enriched bronze. She was at the time worrying over every detail, as the great sculptors will. Was the angle of the knee correct? Was the hip full enough? Was the head set naturally? Was the expression true? The commission called for John Henry to be captured under tack, which makes sense, since he was and will be forever known as the ultimate Thoroughbred warrior, although at that point he wore only his trademark sheepskin shadow roll.

The commitment to Kaiser and the John Henry statue survived the transition of Santa Anita into the bankruptcy proceedings of its parent company, Magna Entertainment. And thank goodness, for now there will be a modern counterweight to the antique sensibilities of the lifesize Seabiscuit statue standing in the Santa Anita walking ring, not to mention a West Coast version of the John Skeaping's Secretariat in the Belmont walking ring, and Alexa King's Barbaro fronting the main entrance of Churchill Downs.

Kaiser, like any artist worth her shaping tools, figured to be nervous as a bug boy on Saturday at the unveiling, since she usualy is. But a call to her earlier in the week revealed a woman of serene anticipation, and it was too early in the day for chardonnay.

"I was at Santa Anita last Thursday and peeled away some of the wrapping to check the patina," said Kaiser, whose bronzes of Charlie Whittingham, Bill Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay set the standard. "Everything looked fine, and then Ron Charles walked up and said, 'Come on. Let's see it!'"

That would be Santa Anita president Ron Charles, the man who green-lighted the John Henry commission, and who gets to say things like "let's see it" and make it happen.

"The reaction from the handful of people there made me feel very good about it," Kaiser said. "If they were pleased, I was pleased. I even forgot for a second the few little things I'd change if I could have it back."

On Tuesday of this week, the image of John Henry was being mounted on its base, and then on Saturday, Kaiser will release her latest creation into the world. If the unveiling unleashes a flood of John Henry memories, that will be a good thing. He is an old acquaintance who will definitely never be forgot. I've got a more than few treasured, first-hand recollections, including the sight of him on his pallet being lifted into a jet transport for the trip to Chicago and that first, historic Arlington Million. He was curious and calm, while his younger traveling mate Super Moment fretted and shook the lift. John Henry looked at him as if to say, "Sheesh, the kids today." John Henry won, over ground he loathed, by the nod of his nose. Here is his complete record: Download John Henry

The trip to Chicago was 28 years ago, last August, and shoot me if the memory still burns. John Henry, a Thoroughbred of abiding integrity, gave racing enough great thrills to last a lifetime. He was the last truly bi-coastal star, uniting fans in respect and admiration, with even a trainer of record in both New York and California during his first Horse of the Year campaign. To suggest that there will never be another one like him misses the point. There never were a lot like him in the first place. But before I babble on and on, this is a good place to open the floor. In the meantime, I can't wait to stand in front of that statue and listen to the stories.

Walter Smith Walter Smith More than 1 year ago
First of all, I have to confess that I'm not an avid racehorse enthusiast. However, as I was through the tv channels many moons ago, I happened upon a horserace in progress, as the horses were being led to the gates. Now I don't know how John Henry got loose, but he did. He proceed to the middle of the track, and stood facing the crowd, as if to say, Yeah that's right, I'm John Henry. The crowd exploded in cheers, applause and a standing ovation. The race was delayed about 5 minutes as a result. It was one of the most amazing and memorable things I've ever seen. I was just giddy with applause and cheers myself. (yeah, I even had tears in my eyes, as I do now reading about John Henry) I'm sure the event has been recorded to video somewhere. Can you tell me where I can find it? At the time it was either John Henry's last race or nearing the end of his career. Thanks P.S. I’ve searched Youtube, Google, and Dogpile.
Johnny U More than 1 year ago
Jay, Great piece. I picked the sport up in 1989 when some high school seniors on the baseball team took me to Monmouth Park after cutting class. I never got to see the mighty John Henry run, but of course know all the stories. My favorite thing about him is noticing how many tracks and distances he ran. From stakes in Atlantic City, Penn National the Golden Gate. Truely amazing! -Johnny U
Grace Belcuore More than 1 year ago
Jay: So wonderful to see an outstanding ovation for John by you - well, done. As you may know the California Equine Retirement Organization became about due to my love for John and the wonderful six months of following him around the tracks back before his retirement in 1985 - and promising him I would help his fellow hard-knocking geldings that had nowhere to go. I pray I have kept my promise to him and that this kind of hlep will go on forever. I also thoroughly enjoyed your article on Zenyatta whom, I believe, comes second to John in personality and endurance - two great athletes. Keep up the writing about our heroes.
Don in Massachusetts More than 1 year ago
Jay, Thank you for writing such a wonderful article reminding people of the Great John Henry and his statue dedication on Saturday at Santa Anita. I am grateful to Santa Anita for commissioning this tribute to one of the most courageous and iconic Thoroughbreds ever to step on a racetrack. Although I never saw him race, I have visited him four times at the Kentucky Horse Park, and John remains one of my all-time favorites. Even in his advanced years, John had that look of eagles, and did things his way. I wish I could be there at the dedication, but distance and the season prevents me. Believe me, I tried. However, I am certain you'll write a follow-up piece for your readers. Long live the Great John Henry in the peoples' hearts and memories!
Kate Harper More than 1 year ago
Thank you for your tribute to John Henry and the memories we are fortunate to share of this great horse, trained by one of the classiest and most honest trainers in the country, Ron McAnally. I am glad JH is being memorialized with a beautiful statue at SA and that Mr. McAnally will be there to unveil it. I liked the way you mentioned his victory over The Bart in the inaugural Arlington Million over a soft, yielding turf course he "hated". Champions can and do win on any surface as he proved over his long career.
Johnny Z More than 1 year ago
Jay, Thank you so much for sharing. John Henry has always been special to me. I drove most of the night in Aug. of 81 to arrive in time to see him beat The Bart in the Arlington Million. John won his first race in May of 1977 and, won his last race in Oct. of 1984. Speaks volumes reagarding his class as not many race that many years, much less go out a winner. I visited him twice at Kentucky Horse Park. The last time was Thursday before the 06 BC at Churchill. At that time he was feisty and appeared to have the energy to still run a race, and win! His main care taker, I think her name was Cathy was very gracious in giving me space and liberty to get as close to John as I dared. While he loved attention, even at that age he would take attention to a point and then with a nip, or more like a bite would let you know he was still the boss. John was a rare athelete that only comes along once in a life time as does a Rachel and Zenyatta. I don't care who wins HOY as either way will not diminish the greatness of the loser!
Midwest Ed More than 1 year ago
Having only really followed the sport for (okay, only started wagering on it in) the past five or six years, John Henry was before my time. While I have seen his races, heard the stories, and watched his connections visit him while he was on the "retirement" farm, I was never really able to develop that personal connection that comes when you witness something as it is happening. However, I am glad that you will now have the opportunity to do what us Arlington Park regulars have been doing for many years - spend a little time with a statue of John Henry while at the race track. The "Against all Odds" statue (which captures his win over The Bart in the 1981 Million) sits on the balcony overlooking the Arlington paddock and is one of my favorite places to be at the park. Enjoy your statue and feel free to come visit ours as often as you like. Midwest Ed
Bernard Downes More than 1 year ago
Jay, October 1981 was our first ever visit to the US (New York City, New York State and Toronto). It coincided with the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont. John Henry was the only horse we had heard of and so we all had a large Win bet on him (too large for the start of a holiday). In the PPs I note the comment "Bore in, driving", won by a head. If my 28 year old memory is correct, that doesn't tell half the story. I recall John Henry taking the second horse right out of the game. The subsequent Stewards Enquiry seemed a formality. Therefore, when the announcement came that John Henry had kept the race, the cheering from our party and most of the rest of the track, raised the roof. Our holiday was saved and my love of the top US races was born. I hope to see the statue live one day. Regards - Bernard
Cgriff More than 1 year ago
What more can I add that you haven't said? Great piece and so looking forward to the unveiling! Best line you've written lately: "There will be gasps, cheers and tears. And that will just be from me." That made me laugh and totally agree in spirit!
MH More than 1 year ago
Video of the statue being transported at SA: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9ZRXknea8E