07/04/2008 12:00AM

Not just another comeback

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. – After a career of 83 starts, 39 victories and 27 graded stakes wins, the record of a horse like John Henry should provide plenty of 25th anniversaries to celebrate. Few, though, are of more importance than the events of July 4, 1983, when Ol’ John won the American Handicap at Hollywood Park.

On paper it was no big deal. At 1 1/8 miles on firm turf, John Henry was in his element. His 127-pound assignment had become par for the course. The opposition was stern, but by then John Henry was accustomed to meeting and beating the best.

Why, then, was trainer Ron McAnally as nervous as a cat in a room full of rockers? Why had McAnally’s former assistant Eduardo Inda flown to town from his new job as a private trainer in Kentucky? Why was exercise rider Lewis Cenicola, usually the coolest guy in the room, fighting king-sized butterflies?

Maybe it was because there was no way that John Henry, at the age of 8, should have been back in the game. For those closest to John, the worst memories of the past seven months were still raw. There was the physical trauma of his trip to the 1982 Japan Cup, where he tied up badly in quarantine and then ran a terrible race, followed back home in California by a painful muscle strain suffered not long after he returned to training. For John Henry to have come so far, so fast was nothing short of miraculous.

Of course, miracles were the name of John Henry’s game. By then, fans could take their pick. Most of John’s disciples clung to the 1981 Arlington Million as their moment of greatest glory, when John Henry overcame his disgust for a sodden, boot-sucking turf course to defeat The Bart by a nose. Others were convinced it was the ’81 running of the Oak Tree Invitational, in which the younger, ambitious Spence Bay had the old man on the ropes until the last 50 yards, when John caught the kid and beat him a neck. And the impact of the 1982 Santa Anita Handicap was still fresh, as well, when John Henry battled the merciless Perrault, lost by a nose, and got the win on Perrault’s DQ.

John Henry could have called it a career on Feb. 12, 1983, and no one would have argued. He was supposed to work a mile that morning, but Cenicola eased him through the final three-eighths after sensing something amiss behind. By the time he got back to the barn, John Henry needed an injection of Bute to ease the pain.

“That’s when John laid down in his stall,” McAnally said at the time, “and he just stayed there until midnight. He’s such a smart horse. He knew just what to do to take care of himself.”

Dr. Jack Robbins diagnosed the injury as an inflamed hip muscle and recommended 60 days of rest. Two months later, almost to the day, John Henry was able to train again, and by mid-June McAnally let it be known that John Henry would be ready to run on the Fourth of July.

Smaller dramas ensued. Bill Shoemaker, John Henry’s rider since the summer of 1981, opted to ride The Wonder for Whittingham in the American. Chris McCarron’s agent, Scotty McClellan, dogged McAnally for days chanting the mantra, “I’m open in the American, Ron.” He got the mount.

On June 26 at Hollywood Park, McCarron got on board John Henry for the first time for a one mile turf work before the first race. The crowd was on the way to being more than 40,000 strong, which may have rattled Cenicola’s pony.

“Chris and I got our stirrups tangled and he almost came off,” Cenicola recalled. “Wouldn’t that have been something?”

McCarron’s recollections are more pragmatic.

“He worked a mile that day faster than his mile split in the race the following week,” said the rider. “That told me how well he was training.”

There were nearly 60,000 people at Hollywood Park on July 4, 1983, for the various festivities, which

included a tote bag giveaway. One of them was my son, nine months and two days old, sitting chilly in my arms in the doorway leading to the grandstand tunnel where horses were saddled back then. John Henry, wearing saddlecloth No. 1, was close enough to touch.

“He’ll be good luck for us,” cooed Sam Rubin, John Henry’s avuncular owner, as he acknowledged my little one.

As if he needed it. John Henry went out and walked his beat, tracking a modest pace and then kicking home with glee. He was 1 1/4 lengths clear at the end, and returned to a winner’s circle presentation that featured “Dynasty” star Linda Evans.

John Henry went on to do enough to be voted male grass champ of 1983, then earned his second Horse of the Year title in 1984. He died in October of 2007, at the age of 32, and is buried at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.

“Being associated with John Henry was such an exciting time in my career,” McCarron said. “And his legacy continues. Just last Saturday night, the Horse Park had a John Henry Adoption night to raise money for a good cause. They take great care to perpetuate his name, and what he accomplished.”

Including that remarkable American Handicap.