10/08/2008 12:00AM

John Henry gets lasting tribute


LEXINGTON, Ky. - On the first anniversary of the Hall of Fame runner's death, John Henry's gravesite at the Kentucky Horse Park got its bronze memorial statue Wednesday.

The bronze is a half-scale depiction of the 15-1-hand John Henry, the underdog gelding who went from $1,100 yearling to five-time champion, two-time Horse of the Year, and record money earner in his long racing career.

The nearly 300-pound bronze was sculpted by Shelley Hunter and rests on a black granite base etched with John Henry's name, dates of birth and death, and "A Lasting Legend." It sits in the garden area, marking the horse's gravesite near the park's Hall of Champions, where John Henry lived from his retirement in 1985 until his death on Oct. 8, 2007.

At Wednesday's unveiling, Hunter told about 200 attendees that the commission was the project of a lifetime that honors not just the horse but also his many fans.

In the nine months it took to finish the bronze, Hunter said John Henry fans gave her personal items they hoped she'd include in the bronze. Among them was a small gold cross presented by an elderly couple who had followed John Henry's career, numerous pennies, and a veteran's Marine Corps dog tag. When the foundry explained that so many pieces could weaken the statue's metal, Hunter instead placed the mementoes in an iron box that the foundry welded into the statue's chest, where the heart would be.

"When we picked the statue up to put it on the base, it rattled," Hunter said with a broad smile.

"I hope people in years to come will be able to understand some of the strength, the dignity, and the fact that John was never willing to give anything but the very best," she said. "If that happens, then the statue will be a success and worthy of John Henry."

Among the ceremony's attendees were John Henry's breeder Verna Lehmann, one-time owner Jean Calloway, and jockey Chris McCarron, who piloted John Henry in the last 14 starts of the gelding's 83-race career.

Also in attendance were former Hall of Champions volunteers like Bill Oster, who spearheaded fundraising for the memorial along with Old Friends founder Michael Blowen and numerous members of what Oster called the "Kicked, Bit, and Stomped Club" - park volunteers who worked personally with the irascible John Henry.

One fan who gave to the fund and traveled from Weatherford, Texas, for the unveiling was Howard McClurkin, resplendent in black jeans, a black jacket, and a black cowboy hat.

"That little brown horse walked up to those doors of opportunity and just kicked 'em in, by himself," an emotional McClurkin said. "To me, he is a true American story. If he can succeed, anybody can succeed. . . . John Henry demonstrated that resolve is everything, and a lack of advantage means nothing."