10/09/2007 12:00AM

John Henry dies at age 32

John Henry
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- , the Hall of Famer who was a five-time champion, two-time Horse of the Year, and known for his toughness and longevity, was euthanized Monday night at the Kentucky Horse Park, his home since 1985. John Henry was 32.

The beloved gelding, who survived colic surgery in 2002, had been treated several times for dehydration this summer as central Kentucky's temperatures soared to 100 degrees. But his stall was equipped with a five-foot-tall air conditioning unit, and he seemed to rally in recent weeks as temperatures cooled.

"After continued successful efforts to maintain the quality of John Henry's life, in the past 48 hours he did not respond to our medical intervention," said Kathy Hopkins, the park's equine director. "Due to the loss of kidney function and muscle mass, his veterinarian, Dr. Mike Beyer, found it impossible to keep him properly hydrated and comfortable. Over the years, our goal has always been to maintain the highest quality of care and life for him, and it became evident over the weekend that this was no longer possible."

A small group was with John Henry when he died, including Hall of Champions director Cathy Roby, who has cared for the gelding for the last 16 years; his breeder, Verna Lehmann; and many of the Hall of Champions staff and volunteers who had shared the experience of caring for him.

John Henry died at 7:05 p.m. Roby and her staff stayed at the Hall of Champions until just after 10 p.m., calling a two-page list of people, mostly elderly fans, who had asked to be informed of the great horse's death by phone, rather than having the shock of seeing it in the papers.

John Henry and his public enjoyed a long goodbye over the summer, when the reports of his dehydration caused many - including one of his former trainers, Bob Donato, former exercise rider Lewis Cenicola, and countless racing fans - to stop by.

John Henry also continued to enjoy his strolls around the park. About an hour before he died, he took a short walk, leading groom Robin Bush halfway up the walkway from his barn, almost to the place where his grave now stands.

"He was ready," Roby, 58, said. "He was so tired. It got to the point where you could see in his eyes he didn't want to fight anymore."

On Tuesday morning, potted white mums and single red roses were laid atop and around John Henry's grave near his paddock. The atmosphere inside the Hall of Champions barn was hushed as a few visitors paused at John Henry's stall door - closed, but still bearing his brass nameplate - to view the mounting flower arrangements and cards from his fans in Burbank, Boston, New Orleans, Seattle, and elsewhere. The park staff, having opened the barn and fed their other charges, seemed a little unsure how to fill the time left, now that their most demanding champion was gone.

"He knew how he should be treated, and he demanded that he be treated that way," said Bush, the 26-year-old park groom who took John Henry for his final walk. "If you didn't, he let you know that wasn't acceptable. He wouldn't tolerate anything that he didn't feel was necessary or appropriate. He just put up with us. He knew that he could get what he wanted by putting up with us.

"The most people could hope for," she concluded, "was that he wouldn't dislike them."

Even in his last weeks, John Henry retained his infamously obstreperous nature, said Roby, who oversaw his daily care for the last 16 years. She had to resort to trickery simply to catch him and medicate him.

"He didn't want to be caught, and every day we'd have to come up with a new plan to try to catch him," she said. "We even got to the point where we would sneak out the back door and hide under his window, and if he stuck his head out the window we would grab his halter. We even tried leaning in his window with a lasso to catch him. It was never a dull moment with John."

John Henry was foaled March 9, 1975, in Kentucky, the result of a mating between Ole Bob Bowers and the Double Jay mare Once Double by Lehmann's Golden Chance Farm. He sold as a yearling for just $1,100 in 1976 to Jean Calloway, who resold him the following year for $2,200. His new buyer, Harold Snowden Jr., found it necessary to geld him in an effort to control the horse's bad temperament.

Snowden sold him to a Louisiana-based partnership for whom John Henry won his first stakes race, the Lafayette Futurity at Evangeline Downs. He was traded back to Snowden, who then sold him to Sam Rubin. It was for Sam Rubin and his wife, Dorothy, that John Henry had most of his success, racing in the colors of their Dotsam Stable.

John Henry went on to become one of the great champions of the modern era, amassing 39 wins from 83 career starts and retiring in 1985 with a then-record $6,591,860 in earnings. His victories included 16 Gradeo1 races and multiple winnings of the Arlington Million (1981, '84), Santa Anita Handicap (1981, '82), Hollywood Invitational (1980, '81, '84), Oak Tree Invitational (1980, '81, '82), and San Luis Rey Stakes (1980, '81). His last trainer, Ron McAnally, is most often associated with John Henry, but Donato and Phil Marino also saddled him earlier in his career.

John Henry was voted champion grass horse in 1980, '81, '83, and '84; champion older horse in 1981; and Horse of the Year in 1981 and 1984. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1990.

Recounting those facts for park visitors, Bush said, was sometimes surreal.

"I found it became hard to look at him and realize, yes, that's the horse that really did all this - and he's my friend," she said. "I get to work with him, I get to brush him, I get to touch greatness every day. You just come to love the horses for who they are. The reason I'm so attached to him, in the end, isn't really about what he did on the racetrack but because of who he was. There will never be another personality quite like his."

Roby said: "It was strange. It was John until the minute that anesthetic took effect. It hit him hard, and he went down gently on his side, and he was gone before his body hit the ground. And that body was not John. You look at this little, frail body, and that was not John. His spirit was so huge, when that spirit was not there, it was just a little bag of bones on the ground."

The park has planned a public memorial service at John Henry's gravesite for 2 p.m. Oct. 19.