03/08/2006 1:00AM

Old champ not rolling over


ARCADIA, Calif. - As far as John Henry is concerned, Bernard Baruch got it right when he said, "To me, old age is 15 years older than I am."

True to the sentiment, John Henry has lived in outright defiance of the normal life expectancies of the typical Thoroughbred, just as he ignored his age as a racehorse to become Horse of the Year when he was 6, and then again at 9. For those keeping track, John Henry is 31, reaching that particular milestone on Thursday, March 9, at home in the Hall of Champions of Lexington's Kentucky Horse Park.

Still, even the bravest old warriors can rage against the night and finally lose a battle or two to the relentless tumbling of the years. Lately, John Henry's old bones have been creaking a little louder than usual. He loves his roll in freshly bedded hay, and he goes down without much fuss. It's getting back up that is proving more and more of a challenge.

John Henry's caretakers at the Horse Park's Hall of Champions - including manager Cathy Roby and assistant Tammy Siters - are finely tuned to the old boy's every need. Veterinarian Mike Beyer is on call to deal with any significant issues, while trainer Murray Johnson has been donating regular treatments with one of his Niagara Equissage units. ("He hasn't bitten me yet," Johnson said. Just wait.) There are also mounted patrols cruising the Horse Park grounds every night, and each officer is well aware that the swaybacked fellow with the grizzly-bear winter coat deserves a special look each time they pass.

John Henry has been very much on the mind lately of those who cherish their racing legends. This year marks the 25th anniversary of his first Horse of the Year campaign, and then there was the death of his owner, Sam Rubin, age 91, in Florida on Feb. 13.

For more than 20 years, John Henry has been the star of the Horse Park's parade of champions. Today, John Henry shares billing with Cigar, stabled right across the barn breezeway in the same stall once occupied by three-time Horse of the Year Forego.

No one likes to contemplate the end for such grand old geldings. But it happens, in spite of all heroic measures. Forego, a foal of 1970, made it to Aug. 27, 1997.

"Forego's last days were fantastic," Roby said. "He was doing really good. Then we came in one morning and I went to let him in the back door, but he didn't want to come in. Normally he would run right in to get his breakfast. I went out to get him, put his halter on, and went to lead him forward, and he would not walk. The vet did radiographs right there, and found the pastern bone in his right hind leg was broken in five pieces.

"We checked the fence to see if he'd caught it somehow, but we couldn't find anything," Roby went on. "His left hip, around the stifle area, had been weak. The only thing we could think of is that he maybe laid down to roll, then when he went to get back up he couldn't put the pressure on that bad side, so maybe he had the good side underneath him, then twisted it or stepped on something trying to get up."

After intense consultation with the noted equine surgeon Larry Bramlage, it was determined that Forego could not be saved.

"Dr. Bramlage said he could have plated it and pinned it back together," Roby said. "But the first time he laid down and went to get back up, it would snap."

The greatest geldings of the last 50 years have met a variety of fates. Kelso, the five-time Horse of the Year, was given an idyllic retirement by Allaire du Pont at her Maryland Farm when his racing days were through, then succumbed to colic on Oct. 16, 1983, after vanning home from a rare public appearance at Belmont Park alongside Forego. Kelly was 26.

Native Diver, a Hall of Famer and three-time winner of the Hollywood Gold Cup, was done in by colic as well, only he was still very much at the top of his competitive game, having just set a nine-furlong track record at Del Mar. The Diver was only 8.

Best Pal, California's all-time top money-winner and runner-up in the 1991 Kentucky Derby, was retired in early 1996 and sent home to Golden Eagle Farm, northeast of San Diego, where he was born and raised. He found a second life as a pony, leading young horses to and from the training track as they began their early lessons. On the morning of Nov. 24, 1998, just three months after a special appearance at Del Mar, the 10-year-old Best Pal suffered a fatal heart attack.

John Henry has trumped them all. And if his behavior is any indication, he is determined to keep going.

"Some horses would just freak out if they couldn't get up," Roby noted. "With him, he's smart enough to say, 'Okay, I'm having problems.' He'll lay back down, get his feet back under him, and then try again until he gets up. And then he gets mad. He takes his front foot and hits the wall. I guess it's his way of expressing frustration."

Makes sense, especially because John Henry always has done it his way.