03/07/2002 12:00AM

Not an easy horse to forget

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ARCADIA, Calif. - John Henry turns 27 on Saturday, and there is a party planned at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky., where he lives in a large paddock and roomy stall in a barn called the Hall of Champions. Dignitaries will show up to rub elbows with the old boy. Fans will bring their memories. But as for gifts, there's the dilemma. What do you get for the horse who's done everything?

It was 20 years ago last month, on Feb. 5, 1982, that the people surrounding John Henry gathered at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami to celebrate their Cinderella champion. He was the runaway choice for 1981 Horse of the Year. His trainer, jockey, breeder, and owners all won Eclipse Awards in their categories. How many times has that happened in the 31-year history of the Eclipse Awards? Exactly once - on Feb. 5, 1982, at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami.

Sam and Dorothy Rubin, the proud owners of John Henry, will be sending their regrets on Saturday. The native New Yorkers live a quietly retired life these days in Palm Beach, on the Florida coast, and a trip to the heart of Kentucky during a cold late winter is an understandable hardship. Sam is 88 and Dorothy is 84.

That does not mean, though, that John Henry is ever far from their thoughts, especially during the past month, as the old boy recuperated from a colic surgery that had everyone concerned.

"We called again today to see how he was feeling," Sam Rubin said Wednesday afternoon. "He's doing very well. They told us earlier that he got so feisty, he was kicking down the barn. So they were letting him go out into his paddock for the first time since the surgery. He's still a very unusual animal."

They were a very unusual pair. Sam Rubin, the kid from the Bronx, whose first experience with horses was driving a laundry wagon for about five dollars a week, and John Henry, the unwanted gelding, originally sold as a yearling for $1,100. In 1985, he retired at the age of 10 with record earnings of nearly $6.6 million.

Rubin bought John Henry as a 3-year-old for $25,000, sight unseen. Later he liked to joke about being told his new horse was a gelding, and that it didn't matter, because he really didn't care what color he was.

It was Rubin's way of keeping things in perspective. Anyone who took him to be merely a bicycle salesman who made good and got a little lucky in the racing game was missing the bigger picture. As a successful entrepreneur and a lifelong horseplayer who once made his living at the races, Rubin knew exactly what he was getting when he bought John Henry, and what to expect.

John Henry's evolution into the best grass horse in America and two-time Horse of the Year was so outrageously against the odds that Rubin had to continually deflect any credit for making a shrewd deal. When he insisted he was just lucky and very grateful, he meant it. Horses just aren't supposed to make the list of "most interesting" in People Magazine, as John Henry did.

"It was an experience that I wish everyone could have," Rubin said. "Dorothy and I have been married 25 years now, and John Henry came into our lives not long after we were married." They bought him in April of 1978, to be exact. "We've had a wonderful marriage, and it was John Henry who did a lot to secure us, and enliven us."

Rubin also knew enough to know that nothing like John Henry would ever happen again, which is why he stepped lightly in subsequent Thoroughbred purchases. The Rubins had to ignore braying from breeders and bloodstock agents that they were being cheap with their John Henry fortune, and that they should dive into the deep end of the business. In the years following the John Henry era, they dabbled in a few New York-breds, then got out altogether with absolutely no regrets.

Then, one lazy afternoon a couple of years ago, Sam was approached by a pal at their Falls Country Club.

"They were always asking me about John Henry this, John Henry that," Rubin said. "Finally, one of the guys who owned some horses years ago in New Jersey said, 'Hey, Sam, let's buy a couple of horses.' "

The group went from two partners to four and then five, with each one putting up $20,000 seed money, plus another $10,000 to keep things going. Just like that, at the age of 86, Sam Rubin was in the ownership game again.

Marty Wolfson trains for the partnership, the Falls Racing Stable, and the With Approval filly O.K. to Dance is the best of their small bunch. Though far from the heights attained by John Henry, she did win the 2001 Gaily Gaily Handicap at Gulfstream Park and the Palisades Handicap at Keeneland last April. She is still in training, though winless this year in three Florida tries.

"We've done fairly well," Rubin said. "O.K. to Dance has won about $200,000, and we've had some fun with her. I just listen, and pretty much agree to whatever the others decide to do.

"I really don't know why they asked me to join them in the first place, though," Rubin added. "I guess they thought I was lucky."

How did they ever get such a wild idea?