09/30/2016 10:46AM

Hovdey: Messi has new world to conquer


After a year in limbo, the John Henry Turf Championship is back at Santa Anita, where the real John Henry did most of his winning during a career of 39 wins in 83 starts. Of those 39, he won 13 at Santa Anita, all of them stakes.

That is an impossible bar for the modern Thoroughbred to grasp, even for geldings who manage to race until they are 9 years old. John Henry was voted Horse of the Year when he was 6 and again when he was 9, which helps explain both his plaque in the Hall of Fame and that magnificent statue by the fountain in the Santa Anita paddock gardens.

During his eight seasons of competition, John Henry ran at 19 different tracks, including Tokyo Race Course. His record was daunting, but not unusual in spirit. Thoroughbreds are true citizens of the world, criss-crossing borders more often than arms shipments. It is a rare racehorse who never leaves his own backyard.

Messi, a chestnut son by New Approach out of Messina, seemed destined to spend his racing life in his native Germany. He was bred there, at the farm of owner Gregor Baum near the town of Soltau, and raced a dozen times at tracks like Hoppergarten and Baden-Baden through the end of his 4-year-old campaign.

Then America called, and Baum sent Messi to Graham Motion at Fair Hill in Maryland. Eight starts later, Messi has run in New York, Kentucky, Chicago, and Toronto, and now on Sunday he will be among a field of 10 at Santa Anita for the renewed version of the $200,000 John Henry.

Flamboyant, Metaboss, and Ashleyluvssugar will be getting most of the attention in the John Henry, but Messi deserves more than a passing glance. He comes out of his best race this year – a 3 1/2-length score in the Sky Classic at Woodbine, at the John Henry distance of a mile and a quarter. Motion put him on a plane to the coast on Wednesday.

“He is just a very cool horse,” Motion said. “Very kind. We had a pretty bad go-around with him last winter. In his last race of 2015 at Churchill he caught a clod in his left eye, and it was a real production to save it.”

For more than a month, Messi’s eye had to remain open yet covered by a protective pigskin membrane. Four times a day, Motion’s staff had to medicate and drain the wound through a catheter to prevent infection.

“We all got very attached to him, as you do when those things happen,” Motion said. “We didn’t do anything with him for a couple of months. Then once they took the skin off the eye, he was able to train again. I think he’s even got most of the sight in that eye, even though there is a little blemish.”

Messi was odds-on to win the River City Handicap at Churchill Downs in November of 2015 when he took the shot in his eye. He still finished fifth. To that point he had won a pair of allowance races and an exciting running of the Knickerbocker Handicap in New York, in which he came from far back to win by a nose.

This year Messi hit the board in the Fort Marcy and the Arlington Handicap before the Sky Classic. His only poor American start, other than the River City, was in the 2015 Sword Dancer at Sartatoga. His excuse that day was Flintshire, which didn’t hurt as much as a clod in the eye, unless you were considering his feelings.

“That was probably a mistake,” Motion said. “He didn’t want to settle, and I’m not certain he wanted to go the mile and a half, even though he’d just won at a mile and a quarter. We tend to think if they can do one they can do the other, which is not necessarily true.”

The first furlong of the John Henry’s mile and a quarter gradually descends the hillside course. Its precursor, the Oak Tree Invitational, was a mile and a half event that was won three times by John Henry, at ages 5, 6, and 7. At 8, he was beaten a half-length in his try for a fourth.

Then again, as far as role model geldings are concerned, Messi need only wander outside his barn to behold the inspiring Better Talk Now, age 17, black and sassy as ever in his Fair Hill paddock.

Better Talk Now won the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Turf, nearly won a second in 2006, and was still firing bullets at age 10 in 2009, when he finished second in the Sword Dancer. Motion trained him to $4.3 million in earnings.

“He looks amazing,” Motion said. “He gets turned out with his pal Gala Spinaway every day. It’s hard to believe he ran in five straight Breeders’ Cups, but he did.”

Messi has yet to rise to the level of the most notable Germans to take their act on the road, including Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Shirocco, Hong Kong Vase winner Borgia, Irish Derby winner Frozen Fire, and the accomplished Maduro, who topped the International Federation of Horse Racing Authorities world rankings for 2007.

But he’s not through yet, and the John Henry could be Messi’s kind of race. Besides, he’s got a 2-year-old half-sister named Mrs. Henry. That’s got to count for something.