11/29/2001 12:00AM

Cup eluded John Henry - briefly

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Poor Charlie Whittingham. For nearly two solid years, from January 1979 through November 1981, he banged his bald head against the solid brick wall named John Henry and never made a dent.

Whittingham tried beating John Henry with Kilijaro (winner of the Yellow Ribbon), with Balzac (winner of the Oak Tree Invitational), with Obraztsovy (winner of the San Juan Capistrano), and with Galaxy Libra (winner of the Man o' War Stakes). They all failed. He tried with South American star Fiestero, South African star Bold Tropic, and with two of Cougar's best boys, Exploded and El Fantastico. No luck.

Then, on the evening of Sunday, Dec. 6, 1981, in the first running of the Hollywood Turf Cup, Whittingham finally found the key. It took a pair of fresh horses from his bottomless stable, combined with a weary John Henry at the end of testing, cross-continental campaign, but Charlie would take it any way he could get it.

At the end of the 1 1/2 miles on giving grass, under a system of newly installed lights, Providential beat Whittingham stablemate Queen to Conquer by a neck, while John Henry was passed in the stretch and finished two lengths behind them in fourth. Whittingham's reaction?

"I thought I'd never beat that #*&$% son-of-a-%#$#*!"

That Whittingham. Always the diplomat.

Twenty years later, the Turf Cup remains one of the best places to test the breed. Management has resisted any temptation to shorten the distance from its original 1 1/2 miles. As a result, its list of winners paints a legitimate picture of the ebb and flow of quality grass racing in California.

John Henry finally won his Turf Cup in 1983, defeating the top French mare Zalataia and pushing his earnings past the $4 million mark in the process. It was the 1981 running, however, that immediately established the Turf Cup as a race of significance.

Before 1981, Los Angeles area racing in December was pretty much restricted to Quarter Horses at night. The expansion of the calendar created a new, year-round world on the circuit, and Hollywood Park did its best to draw top horses with a juicy stakes schedule.

That first Turf Cup was worth $550,500, and remains the richest running ever. In 1999 the purse slipped to $400,000. This year it descended another notch to $250,000, which is still enough to lure Blazing Fury from the East and three runners from the Bobby Frankel barn.

In 1981, a half-million was enough to attract Arc winner Argument, Canadian champion Rainbow Connection, Frankel's improving Wickerr and The Very One, America's best long-distance mare, along with John Henry and the Whittingham runners.

John Henry had not lost a grass race for nearly 14 months. He was on a roll of eight straight turf wins, with main-track victories in the Santa Anita Handicap and Jockey Club Gold Cup in the mix. His only loss in nine 1981 starts had come in the Hollywood Gold Cup.

At level weights and 12 furlongs, the Turf Cup was tough to ignore. Ron McAnally and owner Sam Rubin decided to roll the dice, even though McAnally harbored nagging doubts about John Henry's fitness.

"I couldn't get a good perspective on his condition because his mile work the week before the race was on a muddy track," the trainer said at the time. This was before McAnally was elected to the Hall of Fame, so he can be forgiven.

"But his blowout the day before the race was good," McAnally added. "He had his mouth open all the way and was doing it easy."

When Queen to Conquer took the lead entering the stretch, John Henry had no answer. When Providential flashed past, John Henry could only wave. After what he had already accomplished, John Henry was odds-on to be named Horse of the Year. Still, that was of no consolation to McAnally.

"All that day I had a headache," he said. "I took six aspirin and couldn't get rid of it. I think I wished the day was over before it began. Then after the race I wanted to go home and just crawl in a hole."

Even in defeat, John Henry put the Turf Cup on the map. Today, as he nears his 27th birthday, he is the oldest member of the Hall of Champions at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. Cathy Roby, caretaker of the Hall, has Cigar, Quarter Horse Sgt. Pepper Feature, and Standardbred Western Dreamer in the gallery.

"About a year ago John Henry had a little problem with a front leg," Roby said. "He still likes to run around in his paddock, so I don't know if he slipped, or what. The vet came out to X-ray him, just to make sure he didn't have a spiral fracture. After looking at the X-rays, he said the legs on that horse were so good, he could pass him off as a 3-year-old."

John Henry's back has dropped and his shaggy winter coat is in full bloom, but as far as he is concerned he is still the same ageless warrior who ranged far and wide to win 39 races, $6.5 million and two Horse of the Year titles. If you visit, he is a treat to behold. Just don't expect him to be grateful.

"That's John," Roby said. "He's is the classic grumpy old man. And when he acts like that, everything's fine. It's when he turns sweet that we call the vet."