08/11/2011 2:54PM

Memories of John Henry's first Arlington Million

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In case the mind wanders, which can happen around the racetrack, there is a gorgeous piece of statuary at Arlington Park commemorating the running of the first Arlington Million, in which John Henry got the nod on a tenacious opponent named The Bart after 1 1/4 miles over deep and soggy ground.

In the 30 years that have followed, the Million has rarely failed to be an exciting race. There was the dizzying middle move of the mare Estrapade in 1986, to the blanket finish of 1991, the tumultuous back-to-back runnings of 2003 and 2004, and now the era of Gio Ponti, the winner in 2009 and runner-up last year.

Gio Ponti returns Saturday in an attempt to become the only horse other than John Henry to hold two Million titles. Still, it always will be John Henry’s first Million, on Aug. 30, 1981, that is held as the signature running of the race. The bar was set impossibly high from Day One.

It must be remembered that at the time John Henry was still in the process of building his legend. Sainthood was yet to be bestowed. He was the reigning male turf champion, proven as well on dirt, and possessed of a backstory that led writers to deploy terms like “Cinderella” and “blue collar” at an alarming rate.

He was also quite a piece of work. Spoiled, opinionated, territorial, and sometimes downright grouchy, he was anything but cuddly. It took the combined and highly skilled horsemanship of Ron McAnally, his assistant Eduardo Inda, exercise rider Lewis Cenicola, and groom Jose Mercado to accommodate John Henry’s moods.

In more than five solid years training at California tracks, I dared to give John Henry a hug exactly once. I am not proud of it, either. In was the middle of July, that summer of ’81, and he was freshly off the plane from New York, where he had just won the Sword Dancer Stakes by 3 1/2 lengths. There he was at Ron McAnally’s Hollywood Park barn, hanging his head out of his stall like a very large, slightly distracted German shepherd. The usual fire only flickered. I asked the trainer what was up.

“The ‘ace’ hasn’t worn off yet,” McAnally said, referring to the dose of the common tranquilizer ace-promazine many horses get when they travel. That was all I needed to hear. With a predatory swoop, I wrapped an arm under John’s neck and gave him a squeeze. He was warm. He smelled like tanbark and honey. As I let go he gave me a look that said, “Don’t ever try that again.”

Soon after that John Henry headed for Del Mar to begin serious training for the Million. Del Mar was John Henry’s Deer Lake – the famous Muhammad Ali training camp in Pennsylvania – and he thrived in the summer on the firm dirt and turf. But John Henry was not himself, and McAnally knew it. With the diagnostic help of his vet, Dr. Jack Robbins, they found a small area of irritating calcification at the outside of John Henry’s left fore cannon bone where it joined the fetlock.

“He wasn’t lame, but it could have gotten much worse,” said Robbins, who was already on record as describing John Henry as “probably the soundest horse I’ve ever been around.” For context, Robbins had been attending to most of the top California stables since he worked for the Calumet Farm horses of Ben and Jimmy Jones, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Robbins eased the irritation in John Henry’s ankle with an anti-inflammatory injection, and the champ was back galloping comfortably in a matter of days.

Still, McAnally needed to evaluate John Henry at racing speed before he would green light the Arlington trip. And so, on the cloudy morning of Aug. 23, one week before the race, John turned in what is still known as the most famous mile in Del Mar history, in 1:34.40 (out nine furlongs in 1:46.60) under Bill Shoemaker. The track records at the time were 1:33.60 and 1:46 flat.

You would have thought the Beatles had come to town. McAnally was besieged as he made his way back to the barn from the guinea stand. Fellow trainer Julio Canani kept thrusting his stopwatch into people’s faces as he danced alongside. “Did you see?” he cried. “Did you see?” Back at Barn 1 where a crowd had gathered, Doc Robbins stood off by himself under the shed row, holding his breath as he waited for John Henry to return.

“I was scared to death, him going that fast,” Robbins said. “But the leg was ice cold. He was an amazing horse.”

The next day John Henry flew to Chicago and on the following Saturday he ran over a deep, rain-soaked course he should have loathed. I pulled off a mud boot trying to cross the main track to walk the course, and when I got there, I was hard-pressed to slog my way up the stretch to the starting gate and back again to the wire.

“I never walked it,” McAnally said. “I didn’t want to know how bad it was. What I’ll never forget about that race was watching John struggle with the ground early, and then, at about the half, how he found that beautiful rhythmic stride. I knew then he’d be okay.”

McAnally is at Arlington this weekend to run defending champ Eclair de Lune in the Beverly D. She is stabled in the same barn John Henry occupied for his 1981 Million, as well as his subsequent visits to Arlington to finish second in the 1983 Million and win again in 1984.

“Every time I come back here I have great memories of that first Million,” McAnally said. “It’s not something anyone here forgets, either. I just got a call from a TV crew who want to get a shot of me standing next to the statue. Imagine that, 30 years later.”