03/07/2007 1:00AM

Champ not one to fade away

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Get out the fire extinguishers and turn off the smoke alarms. Friday is the ninth of March, which means that two-time Horse of the Year John Henry is another year older. Again.

Cathy Roby, one of the long-suffering women in John Henry's cushy life at the Kentucky Horse Park near Lexington, said the first inquiry about a 32nd birthday party for the old scalawag came last October. Such positive thinking was admirable, Roby noted. But she politely replied that such plans were difficult to make in the case of a 31-year-old horse.

"They said they needed to get plane reservations," said Roby, who manages the Horse Park's Hall of Champions. "So I told John he had to make it to March. He had a little setback around Christmas when he lost some weight, and we really didn't know what was going to happen. But he rallied, and now people are coming out of the woodwork to celebrate."

Let 'em come, and let 'em eat cake. For his part, John Henry may or may not decide to acknowledge the fuss. Since last summer, he has been excused from daily showings at the Hall of Champions, leaving the stage to such understudies as Cigar and Da Hoss. Seems the scrutiny and confinement of the show ring gave flight to John Henry's imagination, not to mention a thrill for the folks in the front row.

"I'm not sure he likes to be around people much anymore," Roby said. "We'd bring him out to the pavilion, and he'd start bucking and kicking over the ropes. So we just let him stay in his stall for people to visit him there."

Good plan, except for the fact that now John Henry doesn't even want to stay in his stall during visiting hours. Five minutes is about all he'll tolerate, said Roby, then he'll pitch one of his crotchety fits, bucking and holding his breath like a 4-year-old kid until he's set free into his large, white-fenced paddock.

While they've got him, during those five minutes or so of captivity, Roby and her crew administer John Henry a daily dose of medication designed to control the effects of Cushing's disease, a hormonal imbalance caused by a tumor in the pituitary gland that occurs primarily in older horses. If not treated, Cushing's can cause laminitis.

Of course, at his age, every little thing could mean the end for John Henry. Then again, he might bury us all. John Henry has spent his life defying the odds, from his second Horse of the Year campaign at age 9, to his 23 years of relatively healthy retirement.

At 32, John Henry is the oldest major American champion to roam the landscape since Round Table, the 1958 Horse of the Year who lived to be 33. There is a pattern, and not just their longevity, or the fact that both Round Table and John Henry were leading money winners and three-time grass champions who could perform with equal aplomb on either dirt or turf, East or West.

Their link became apparent to Ron McAnally early in the John Henry years. McAnally, the trainer who took John to great heights for five solid seasons, came across a photo that he thought was a shot of John Henry. Instead, it was Princequillo, sire of Round Table and paternal great-grandsire of John Henry.

"It was mostly his eye, and his overall conformation," McAnally said of the resemblance. "Round Table was a much taller horse than John Henry. But John Henry and Princequillo - they almost looked like the same horse."

Round Table has been dead 20 years. He is buried in a corner of the Claiborne Farm cemetery beside the remains of Swale, Claiborne's Kentucky Derby winner, and the contrast in mortality is stark. Swale died in June of his 3-year-old season, shortly after adding the Belmont Stakes to his Derby win.

Unlike John Henry, Round Table mellowed with age, according to Seth Hancock of Claiborne Farm.

"He was a very aggressive horse when he was younger," Hancock said. "Never a lot of trouble, but in his later years he was pretty much a sweetheart. We just treated him like a normal horse. His teeth obviously got bad - we had to feed him mashes - but apart from that he kind of just kept on keepin' on."

At the end, it was nothing dramatic. Round Table simply had become too old to enjoy any kind of a quality life.

"He wasn't in any pain," Hancock recalled. "He was just old and stiff, but that's just part of it. At the end he would wander around in the paddock a little, but he didn't do a whole heck of a lot."

John Henry, on the other hand, seems determined to go out in a blaze of glory. Not long ago, the birthday boy was witnessed running flat-out, ears back and body lowered, back and forth in his paddock.

"I'm sure he thought he was barrel-racing," Cathy Roby said. "At this point it doesn't look like he'll ever act his age."