03/09/2005 12:00AM

Happy 30th, John Henry

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Photos By Z
Chris McCarron, who rode John Henry in his last 14 starts, was among the birthday well-wishers.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - John Henry turned 30 on Wednesday, and he had about 150 friends to help him celebrate.

The notoriously cantankerous gelding emerged from his stall at the Kentucky Horse Park's Hall of Champions while a crowd of fans - including his breeder, Verna Lehmann, former trainer Bobby Donato, former owners Jean Callaway and Hal Snowden, and jockey Chris McCarron, who rode John Henry in his last 14 starts - sang "Happy Birthday" to him. John Henry, a five-time champion and Horse of the Year in 1981 and '84, has a thick, woolly coat and a slightly swayed back these days. But he is still bright-eyed and as opinionated as ever, even though, as Horse Park officials pointed out, he is the equivalent of 98 in human years.

"He's been very wound up this morning," said Cathy Roby, who runs the Hall of Champions. "He knows something's up."

Despite temperatures in the 20's, John Henry fans, many clutching memorabilia and wearing caps with his name embroidered on them, filled the barn aisle and crowded along the outside walkway to get a glimpse of the aging champion, whose life at the Horse Park has been largely carefree. He had colic surgery in 2002 but bounced back in his usual determined style. That kind of toughness, Roby says, is what has won him so many lifelong fans.

"He has been an inspiration not only to racing fans, but to people all over the world because of his determination," she said. "He's given them the courage to just keep going and you'll win out in the end."

The presence of so many fans at the celebration reminded McCarron that he owed some of his own fame as a rider to John Henry.

"He meant a huge deal to me and my career," McCarron said, "because he sent my career into the stratosphere. . . . Everywhere John went, people followed. If you had the mount on John Henry, people not just in racing but all over the world would know who you were."

The only regret McCarron said he had about his association with the gelding was not knowing him better when he rode him in the 1983 Arlington Million. John Henry lost that race, finishing a neck behind Tolomeo.

"He was a momentum-builder who took a while to build up his head of steam," McCarron said of John Henry. "I asked him to run a little too late."

McCarron wasn't the only one giving thanks to John Henry. So was Horse Park director John Nicholson, who noted that the facility's development into a world-famous equestrian venue began, in a sense, when John Henry arrived as a full-time resident there in 1986.

"He's our good-luck charm," Nicholson said.

Looking around at the party's attendees, including children who were too young to have seen John Henry's races but were excited to see the champion in person, Nicholson concluded, "This just shows that Thoroughbred racing is alive and well, and horses are still our heroes."