10/02/2003 11:00PM

A class reunion in the Bluegrass

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - It has been five years since Sam and Dorothy Rubin have seen their most famous racehorse, the legendary gelding John Henry, and some things have changed for horse and humans since then.

John Henry, now 28 and in luxurious retirement at the Kentucky Horse Park's Hall of Champions, had serious colic surgery last year. And Sam Rubin, 89, sustained severe injuries in 1998 when a pick-up truck hit him head on and totaled his car.

Both have bounced back, but the brush with trouble rekindled the Rubins' desire to see their racing icon again. As Sam's 86-year-old wife, Dorothy, put it recently, "We wanted to see John Henry again before either he goes or we go."

The Rubins had a happy reunion with John Henry at the Kentucky Horse Park on Thursday, and the notoriously cantankerous gelding was on his best behavior, even allowing Sam Rubin to kiss his nose ("Boy, that's a brave thing to do!" exclaimed Hall of Champions manager Cathy Roby). Dorothy and her son, Tom Levinson, even got to pat the old horse on the neck - the first time, both said, that John Henry had ever let them touch him.

The Rubins made the trip partly to announce their intention to bequeath the gelding's trophy collection to the park, but it was also a time to reflect on the thrills they had from this plain, oddly-conformed bay runner who went from a $1,100 yearling to a $6 million earner.

John Henry was the Rubins' first racehorse, and Sam Rubin bought him sight-unseen for $25,000 after other owners had given up on the Ole Bob Bowers gelding's chances to make much of a racehorse. When someone who heard of the purchase asked him why he had spent $25,000 on an obscure gelding, Rubin said, "Why? What color is a gelding?"

"I didn't know anything about horses," he said Thursday. "I also bought three other horses, and here's what happened to them: One ended up directing traffic in Albany, another went to Cornell University, and a third was in the Canadian mounted police. That's how much I knew about picking horses."

John Henry, it turned out, was a stroke of amazing luck for the Rubins. They put him in Ron McAnally's barn, where he bloomed into one of racing's all-time greats, winning the inaugural Arlington Million and 16 Grade 1 races. He earned championship honors five times and was named Horse of the Year twice, in 1981 and 1984. When he retired, he was the sport's all-time leading money-winner with $6,597,947 in purses.

"He had this demonic glare," Tom Levinson recalled. "Like a boxer. His eyes would almost glaze over. He knew he had to beat everybody out there."

Rubin recounted his horse's illustrious record for the crowd that gathered to see the reunion at the Horse Park, and, reaching out to pat the woolly neck of the horse he calls John-John, Rubin said, "That was you, ol' buddy. Why are you being so nice today?"

The Rubins, for the record, are still in the game, although after John Henry's retirement in 1984, they never expected to ever have another horse of his caliber.

But they have continued as owners, mainly at the request of four other couples they know from a Palm Beach country club called The Falls. Each couple put up $100,000, called themselves The Falls Stable, and put four claiming-level runners in training with Marty Wolfson.

Also on hand was Verna Lehmann, who bred John Henry (and 1970 Derby winner Dust Commander) with her late husband Robert.

"I really don't know how I did it," Lehman said of the famously obscure mating between Ole Bob Bowers and Once Double that produced John Henry. "I thought they would be good together."

The Lehmans' Golden Chance Farm sold John Henry because he was hard to deal with and badly conformed, she said. "We had three vets check him, and they all said to get rid of him, he'd never race. The Rubins were smart people to buy that horse, as it turned out."

"It was luck," Dorothy Rubin said. "Pure luck."

Tattersalls average up

The Tattersalls Houghton yearling sale ended Thursday night with a record average and median, boosted in part by aggressive bidding from Coolmore boss John Magnier.

A $2,191,875 filly by Coolmore stallion Giant's Causeway topped the sale on Magnier's bid. The filly, a daughter of Colorsnap, by Shirley Heights, is a half-sister to stakes-winners Croeso Cariad and Photogenic. Meon Valley Stud was the seller.

The auction sold 165 yearlings this year for $51,447,690, producing an average price of $467,706. The median was $350,700. In the local currency of guineas, the average and median achieved new records, rising 17 percent and 25 percent, respectively.

The auction also featured the sale of a single lot by Dubai Millennium, the only filly by the ill-fated sire to be offered at public auction. Dubai Millennium died of grass sickness in his only year at stud. His daughter out of Cloelia, consigned by the Castleton Group, went for $2,104,200 to agent Charlie Gordon-Watson on the final evening. Gordon-Watson purchased the filly on behalf of Gainsborough Stud, which is owned by Sheikh Maktoum al Maktoum.