10/19/2007 12:00AM

John Henry memorial attracts 200

EmailLEXINGTON, Ky. - John Henry's memorial service took place at his graveside Friday at the Kentucky Horse Park, drawing about 200 people to the Hall of Champions where the Hall of Famer and five-time Eclipse Award winner had lived since 1985.

In a blustery autumn wind, some of the gelding's most prominent fans and some of his connections described him as an inspiration and an icon.

"We're talking about a horse - a horse who was able to capture the minds and hearts of people around the world, not just in the United States," said jockey Chris McCarron said of John Henry, who died Oct. 8 at the park at age 32. McCarron rode John Henry in the last 14 starts of the gelding's 83-race career.

Tom Levinson, the stepson of John Henry's last owner, Sam Rubin, recalled that his family "never really felt they were the owners of John Henry, only the caretakers."

Gesturing to the crowd, he added: "They felt that you were the owners of John Henry."

Park executive director John Nicholson, retired Keeneland chairman Ted Bassett, and former Kentucky governor Martha Layne Collins credited John Henry with elevating the park's stature.

Joe Tobich and his family, who came from Richmond, Va., for Keeneland's races and John Henry's memorial, attested to John Henry's power as a draw and inspiration.

"We've been coming here every year for the last six or seven years for the races, and we always spend one day at the Kentucky Horse Park," said Tobich, 59, a chemistry teacher who last visited John Henry in July. "We would always come see John Henry. He was a fabulous horse because of where he came from, common breeding, and his perseverance, his tenacity. He never gave up. That's why a lot of us love him, for what he taught us.

"I teach, and he taught me lessons. I'd like to give those lessons to my students, for them to work hard for what they can achieve if they put their minds to it."

John Henry's breeder, Verna Lehmann, stood at the edge of the crowd at the service. She confessed she still marvels at what her whimsical mating of Ole Bob Bowers and Once Double wrought.

"I think it's wonderful that people admire the little horse so much, because no one wanted him," said Lehmann, who remembered that she and her late husband Robert sent Once Double to Ole Bob Bowers partly because they felt bad the sire's book was so small.

"He was little. But he showed them he had the guts and the determination to race," Lehmann said.

"He was small, but I still cringe when people say he was an ugly horse," she added. "He had a beautiful body and a beautiful head, and he wasn't really that bad off in those knees. I didn't notice it, but when you have three veterinarians tell you he's never going to race, what do you do? We had 32 foals, and so we had to cull some. That's why he went to sale.

"I was at his euthanization," she added. "I was there when he came into the world, and I thought I should be there when he left. But that was hard to see."

After the service, visitors viewed John Henry's stall, where the display of flower arrangements and wreaths was so large its perfume wafted throughout the Hall of Champions. Nearby, a box of chocolate doughnuts from the Georgetown, Ky., bakery Frank's Donuts - labeled "John's favorites" - sat near a guestbook.

John Henry is buried near his former paddock, and the Old Friends equine retirement program is leading a fundraiser to erect a permanent memorial at the gelding's grave.

Vinery lands three stallions

Florida stallions Repent, Congrats, and Alke - originally set to stand at Brent and Crystal Fernung's new Journeyman Stud in 2008 - now will stand at Vinery South.

Vinery made the announcement Friday, and said it would set fees at a later date. According to Brent Fernung, the change came after owner John Sykes changed his mind on Sept. 28 after signing a stallion management agreement with Fernung on July 16.

"It was mutually decided that we should conclude all our business ventures and go our separate ways," Fernung said. "We owned Repent in partnership, and he has purchased my interest in him. It was a fair offer, which leaves Journeyman with multiple lifetime breeding rights in all three stallions."

* Woods Edge Farm in Lexington will open a stallion division in 2008 by standing Grade 1 winner Latent Heat. The 4-year-old Maria's Mon-True Flare colt, winner of the 2006 Malibu and 2007 San Carlos, will stand for $15,000 as the property of a syndicate.

* Graded winner and 2005 Kentucky Derby runner-up Closing Argument will relocate from Sequel Stallions in Florida to Hill 'n' Dale in Lexington for 2008. The Successful Appeal horse's first foals are weanlings this season. He will stand for $12,500.

* An Acclamation-Be My Wish colt sold to Amanda Skiffington for about $154,224 to top Friday's session at the Tattersalls October yearling sales Book 3 auction. The second of three sessions grossed about $3,868,452 for 139 yearlings, down 26 percent from last year's total for 161 horses. The average of about $28,662 was down 14 percent, and the median of about $19,278 was off 25 percent.