02/23/2006 1:00AM

Fate stepped into Rubin's life


ARCADIA, Calif. - It was early September of 1981. John Henry had just won the inaugural Arlington Million, and his owner, Sam Rubin, was still basking in the glow. On this particular day he was lounging at the La Costa Resort and Spa, a few miles north of Del Mar, waxing philosophical about the plain bay horse who was rapidly becoming the most popular animal in the land.

"You know, I'm a believer in fate," Rubin said. "In the buying of John Henry it was fate. Someone picked us out that day to say to Joe Taub, 'Joe, I want to buy a couple horses.' And then to get to Harold Snowden and buy a horse on the phone. I mean, it's so wild, to wind up with a John Henry out of nothing."

That is pretty much how the story began, followed by one weird twist after another, fairy tale heaped upon preposterous fairy tale, until there was no longer any resistance to the fact that John Henry would go down in racing history as a champion from out of nowhere, a true Cinderella story.

By the end of the seven seasons he raced for Sam Rubin and his wife, Dorothy, John Henry had made household names of everyone connected to the legend. There were the major players of the inner circle, including trainer Ron McAnally, assistant trainer Eduardo Inda, exercise rider Lewis Cenicola, and groom Jose Mercado. There were his jockeys, among them Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay, and Chris McCarron. And there were those who brushed briefly with John Henry - an array of owners, trainers, jockeys, and agents - who could say that, whether they knew it or not, they once had their hands on a horse of a lifetime.

Still, it is the name of Sam Rubin that will stick to John Henry longest of all. Sam Rubin, the streetwise kid from the Bronx, scuffling puppeteer, traveling toy salesman, and successful bicycle importer who made sure that whenever he was on the road, there was a racetrack nearby.

"I'd lost my father at a very young age," Rubin once told Gerry Strine in the Horsemen's Journal. "My mother brought up four kids. I was the youngest. By 12 or 13 I was working on the laundry wagon as a helper, every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. And after we made our pickups or deliveries, we'd have races around the block. It was anything for a buck, and I had the best horse."

The facts of Rubin's life needed no embellishment, and his death last week, at the age of 91, brought the John Henry memories back in a flood.

Yes, Rubin bought the horse sight-unseen, for $25,000 plus 10 percent commission, after John Henry had run 17 times and won just three races. When told his new purchase was a gelding, he wondered aloud, "What color is that?"

It did not take long for John Henry to develop as a superb grass horse, first for Robert Donato, then Lefty Nickerson, and finally McAnally. As John Henry soared, eventually winning seven Eclipse Awards, Rubin became known far and wide as the champ's avuncular Jewish uncle, the glad-handing bicycle salesman from New York who was so deeply devoted to his horse.

"Look at what he does at the age of 9," Rubin marveled at the end of 1984, John Henry's second Horse of the Year season. "Runs at six different tracks all over the country. Wins another Arlington Million, and the Turf Classic. 'People' calls him one of the 20 most intriguing people of the year, for goodness sakes. I laughed myself silly. He's right there between Ronald Reagan and Lee Iacocca!"

His joy was sincere, but by then Sam Rubin also had grown weary of holding his breath. John Henry had run a staggering 66 times for the Rubins, winning 36 races, 29 of them stakes.

"I always lived in fear of the day something will happen to him during a race," Rubin said later, after sending 10-year-old John Henry to the Kentucky Horse Park. "The thought of John Henry breaking down in a race had become too vivid. What more could he do? He changed all our lives for the good."

In the end, Rubin was a prudent steward who really made only two bad moves with John Henry, more out of supreme confidence in his horse than mere personal hubris. Fortunately, John Henry was horse enough to recover from both.

The first came near the end of the 1982 season, when the owner decided his horse should run in the Japan Cup. The difficult journey nearly brought disaster when John Henry was stricken by colic. He recovered and ran anyway, but finished far back.

The second was Rubin's decision to bring an 11-year-old John Henry out of retirement in May of 1986, turning him over to McAnally in hopes of a miraculous comeback. McAnally did just enough with John Henry to convince Rubin there were no miracles left, while John Henry returned to his life of leisure at the Kentucky Horse Park's Hall of Champions as if nothing had happened.

Horse Park management has announced plans to install a bench and a memorial plaque at the Hall of Champions in Sam Rubin's honor, which is a fine idea, as long as the bench is planted with an unobstructed view of 31-year-old John Henry himself.