06/10/2004 12:00AM

At age 29, John Henry's still kicking


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Now that the 3-year-olds are napping, at least for a while, it is time to commence the 20th anniversary celebration of the most memorable Horse of the Year campaign of the 1980's.

And what better way to start than on Saturday at Hollywood Park in the $350,000 Whittingham Memorial? During the Reagan era, the race was known simply as the Hollywood Invitational Handicap. If asked, however, the grouchy old battler named John Henry would have a slightly different description of the event. He called it, "Mine."

John Henry began winning the Invitational at age 5 in 1980 by defeating Balzac and Go West Young Man. They went on to finish one-two in the Hollywood Gold Cup.

The following year, when he was Horse of the Year the first time, John Henry beat a group that included Caterman (later the disqualified winner of the local Gold Cup) and Galaxy Libra (all he did was win the Man o' War).

The old boy gave the other grass runners a chance in 1982 and 1983 while he rested his aging ankles. Then, in 1984, he commenced his 9-year-old campaign with a dry run in the Santa Anita Handicap, a close third in the San Luis Rey Stakes, and a victory in the Golden Gate Handicap, in which he set the course record for 11 furlongs.

In the 1984 Hollywood Invitational, contested on Memorial Day, John Henry proved conclusively that he was not going to be some creaky novelty act. What he did that day to a fine horse named Galant Vert was a crime, for Galant Vert looked to be a sure winner with very little of the 1 1/2 miles left to run.

Then, with Chris McCarron hanging on, Ol' John dove through the inside, shaded six seconds for the final sixteenth, and beat Galant Vert and Bill Shoemaker by a half-length, spotting them 10 pounds in the bargain. The final time of 2:25 broke John's own stakes record.

From there, John Henry went on to finish second in the Hollywood Gold Cup, then rip through victories in the Sunset Handicap, the Arlington Million, the Turf Classic at Belmont Park, and the Ballantine Handicap at The Meadowlands. He was primed to star in the very first Breeders' Cup Turf at Hollywood Park when a ligament flared and he had to decline. But give him a break. He was 9.

Despite being branded by People magazine as one of the 25 most intriguing "people" of the year (in 1984 this would include Farrah Fawcett, Lee Iacocca, and Michael Jackson), John Henry outpolled New York's favorite son Slew o' Gold for the ultimate racing honor.

To that point, only Challedon, Whirlaway, Kelso, Secretariat, Forego, and Affirmed had earned the title more than once, and only Cigar since. There was grumbling, of course, but anyone who thought the vote for John was swayed by sentiment needed only a quick review of the Hollywood Invitational videotape. That, or ask Galant Vert.

The cast assembling for the 2004 Whittingham on Saturday offers fair tribute to the memory of John Henry. Musical Chimes will try to join champions Dahlia and Typecast as the only fillies or mares to win the race. Continental Red, a mere lad of 8, is still breathing fire, while invaders Della Francesca, Vangelis, and Sabiango lend the race an exotic air.

Now 29, John Henry is still around to admire their work from afar. For the past 19 years he has been the center of attention at the Kentucky Horse Park, near Lexington, where he reigns as the grand old man of the Hall of Champions. His mates include Cigar and Da Hoss.

Three times a day, John Henry is shared with Horse Park visitors beneath a covered ring, complete with video accompaniment, as master of ceremonies Linda Brantley recites his professional virtues and warns of his unsociable behaviors. Cathy Roby has run the Hall of Champions for 13 years.

"The only time John gets really upset is when he feels a storm coming," Roby said. "Once it hits, he's fine, but he senses it long before we do. Especially when he's in the show ring, he'll perk up and start trying to run laps. Some days it's almost like lunging him. I just stand in the middle and he runs around me. If you try and make him stand still, he'll start bucking and kicking out. He sure doesn't act 29."

His fans are legion. Roby got a recent call from a woman who named one of her Thoroughbred foals "Juan Henry" in tribute.

"She was coming down here to visit John," Roby said, "and she wanted to pour carrot juice on her arms so he would bite her, then she could have scars to show everybody. I thought that was a bit much. Besides, he'll bite you without the carrot juice."

If a Thoroughbred lives to 20, he's had a good, long life. Thirty is pushing the envelope, but John Henry shows no signs of saying goodbye.

"We've decided he's going to outlive us all," Roby said. "Or there will come a day when he decides it's been long enough, and he'll just go off on his own. Whatever happens, it will be up to him."