09/21/2007 12:00AM

John Henry's toughness still shows

EmailLEXINGTON, Ky. - John Henry was still here, and doing well for a 32-year-old horse. That was the news from the Kentucky Horse Park's Hall of Champions on Friday, and it was welcome news at the end of a long, hot summer for one of racing's greats.

Hundred-degree temperatures this summer have taken a toll on John Henry. Since July, he has been treated several times for dehydration. A week ago, the situation looked so grim that park officials quietly began making preparations for his death. Maintenance staff even marked the rough outlines of his grave in orange paint on the grass; plans call for it to lie near a tree at one end of the walkway leading toward the Hall of Champions, where the two-time Horse of the Year and five-time champion has lived since 1985. But John Henry has rallied since the predictions - and at least one Internet report - of his demise.

"I think he heard us talking about it," Cathy Roby, John Henry's main handler for the last 16 years, said one day this week as she stood outside the old horse's stall. "He probably thought, 'I never have done anything you wanted me to do, so I'll do this my way, too!' "

At 32, John Henry is somewhere between 85 and 200 years old in human years, depending on whose horse-to-human age calculation you use, but any way you look at it, he is fragile. He's also mentally tough, and that, says Roby, is probably one of the reasons John Henry was still standing in his 18- by 18-foot stall this week, contentedly munching a little hay and the occasional oatmeal cookie or chocolate doughnut.

As of Friday morning, attending veterinarian Dr. Mike Beyer had not called for John Henry to be put on intravenous fluids again, the treatment for dehydration, but he continues to draw the gelding's blood every day or so to monitor his condition. Roby said John Henry has been drinking regularly and deeply from his water bucket in recent days. He also has the benefit of a 5-foot-tall portable air conditioner, and on Thursday afternoon he stood dozing in front of it. His mane lifted slightly in the cool jet of air, revealing that he still has a small catheter in his neck, in case he needs the intravenous fluids again.

It has been a remarkable rally, but one entirely in character for a horse as famous for his contrarian and irascible nature as for his race record.

"Last Friday, he was dull," Roby, 58, recalled. "He was really bad. He wasn't eating, he was hardly drinking anything. We were really concerned, and we were thinking about what to do, because we weren't going to let him suffer. On Saturday morning, he was still fairly lethargic and still didn't have that sparkle in his eyes, but by Saturday afternoon he perked up and starting eating and drinking. And by Sunday he was good."

"Good," it should be understood, is a relative term in a 32-year-old horse's life. He has some common age-related problems, such as reduced kidney function - also monitored closely through the regular blood tests - as well as Cushing's disease, an affliction of the pituitary gland that leads to the release of excess cortisol, a hormone. The disease is fairly common in older horses and, as in John Henry's case, it can cause the coat to remain thicker than normal even in warmer seasons. John Henry receives daily medicine for the Cushing's.

Park staff have opted to treat John Henry at home rather than take him to the nearby Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, Roby said, because the gelding becomes upset leaving his barn - except for the jaunts he took earlier this spring and summer on a lead line. When he was in a mood to walk, Roby said, a park staffer would let him choose his own route. Sometimes John would head for the foals' paddock and then turn home. But on other days he would take the grand tour, peering over the fence at the cross-country course and examining the indoor arena.

More recently, though, he has been content to stay in his stall during the day and graze outside in his adjoining paddock at night.

"Yesterday he took off out the door with one of our ladies, and she let him go as far as he wanted," said Roby. "He walked to the end of the walkway, looked around, and came back. Whatever he wants to do is up to him."

Has his infamous ornery streak helped him through the summer? Roby thinks so.

"Oh, yeah, I would say that's most of it," Roby said. "He's still very tough, and when he feels good, watch out. He's already been biting and kicking and trying to stomp on toes today. And as long as he's doing all that, we're happy. If he gets to where he's not feeling good, all of a sudden he gets really sweet.

"Last Saturday morning, I was cleaning his stall, and he kept following me around and trying to put his head over my shoulder," she said. "I thought, 'Oh, this is not good.' "

Roby says John isn't as quick as he used to be. "But he still tries," she said. She puts her own right arm forward as a testament. One of many John-related scars runs near her right thumb, the result of a bite that drew a surprising amount of blood, just moments before Roby had to hold John Henry for a Japanese TV crew beaming live to Japan.

"I didn't even realize until afterwards that I was standing there on TV with blood running down my arm," she said.

Late this week, a series of somber and respectful individuals stopped by John Henry's stall, pressed against its mesh gate ("Please do not put fingers thru gate!" warns a brass plate), and spoke words of encouragement in low tones, as if visiting a relative's bedside. One man drove all night from Maryland to make sure he saw the old horse before it was too late; another leaned close to the gate and said, "I love you, John. You hang in there. You're looking good."

Roby understands completely.

"I am always a servant to this horse," she said, "but it's my honor."