10/09/2007 12:00AM

A racing giant, impossible to forget

EmailWhen Queen Victoria died on Jan. 22, 1901, after a 64-year reign over the British Empire, church bells tolled, stores were shuttered, and theaters closed in mid-performance. Tens of thousands packed the streets of London on the day of her funeral, wearing black and mourning the passing of the only monarch most of them had ever known. In death, she was described as "the magnetic idea that drew the passionate affection and allegiance of her subjects to the centre."

When Franklin D. Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, war-weary Americans staggered at the news. Teenagers had never known another president, and many adults never wanted another. In Chicago, the young reporter Studs Terkel wrote, "I'm walking south on Michigan Boulevard and I can't stop crying. Everybody is crying." In Greenville, N.C., a large bell originally installed as an air raid signal was rung every 10 seconds for 20 minutes beginning at 6:15 p.m.

The following day, Chief Petty Officer Graham Jackson, Roosevelt's favorite musician, took up his accordion to play "Goin' Home" as the train bearing the president's casket left Warm Springs, Ga., headed for Washington, D.C., and then traveled on to the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park, N.Y., where the president was buried in a rose garden. Thousands lined the tracks along the way.

In his own manner, insistent and steady, the Thoroughbred known as John Henry has been every bit as important to his own constituency as the great leaders of human civilization. He was a rare individual of unflinching honesty, generous in victory, gallant in defeat. Horse racing could count on John Henry, year after year, to put the game in headlines and people in the seats. He was a superstar for grown-ups. George Clooney in a horse suit.

Now that he is gone, after a long and accessible retirement at the Kentucky Horse Park, he is still impossible to forget, even though his last competitive appearance was 23 years ago, when he won for the 39th time in a career of 83 starts.

For those lucky enough to enjoy the ride, it is impossible to erase the images of John Henry through the years, yanking the heart out of very good horses as they came at him in waves - Spence Bay, Galaxy Libra, Flying Paster, Majesty's Prince, Caterman, Balzac, Royal Heroine, Relaunch, Win, The Bart, Relaxing.

The point of the Thoroughbred endeavor is to breed horses like John Henry all the time. So far, there only has been the one, just as Kelso, Forego, Damascus, Dr. Fager, Secretariat, Ruffian, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid each has come and gone without hope of replacement, the constellations in racing's vast sky.

And yet, at the end of the day, John Henry was no more and no less than a hard-working performance animal. He needed the care and conditioning of any great athlete playing at the pinnacle of a sport. Ron McAnally, his most successful trainer, would lie awake countless nights wondering, "Did I do enough? Did I do too much?" John Henry, in the meantime, slept peacefully in his stall.

Of all his accomplishments in a Hall of Fame career that has spanned parts of six decades, McAnally views his handling of John Henry leading up to 1982 Santa Anita Handicap as his training masterpiece.

John Henry had won the Big Cap in 1981 and was the reigning Horse of the Year, but he had not raced since his fourth-place finish in the Dec. 6 Hollywood Turf Cup. He spent a month of R&R at the Galway Downs training center, then returned to Santa Anita on Jan. 7, 1982, and recorded the following collection of formal works:

Jan. 15, three-eighths, 35 4/5 seconds.

Jan. 22, half-mile, 49 3/5, track slow.

Jan. 30, three-quarters, 1:12 2/5.

Feb. 9, seven-eighths, 1:27 3/5, turf, dogs up.

Feb. 15, mile, 1:37 2/5, bullet.

Feb. 21, mile, 1:36 4/5, bullet.

Feb. 28, 1 1/8 miles, 1:47 2/5 (p.m., Bill Shoemaker up).

March 6, three-eighths, 35.

In the race itself, on March 7, John Henry was beaten a nose by Perrault, but then elevated to victory on Perrault's clear-cut disqualification. The prelude, though, was nearly as satisfying as the climax, and the mile of Feb. 21 was especially memorable, underlying John Henry's grip on his environment.

It was late on a cool Sunday morning when John Henry and exercise rider Lewis Cenicola stepped onto the track. More than 300 fans and horsemen lingered, enjoying breakfast and the sunshine. But they fell silent when Cenicola broke off at the wire, after which the hush was broken only by workout host Terry Nelson announcing the half and three-quarter splits. When John Henry crossed the line, and Nelson reported the final time, the crowd snapped back to life.

"Just like E.F. Hutton," McAnally said, allowing himself a grin. "When John Henry talks, everybody listens."

In its issue of May 1985, Equus magazine analyzed the John Henry phenomenon from stem to stern. The most telling observations came from Dr. George Pratt, the noted MIT engineering professor who made a lifetime study of the equine in motion.

Pratt noted that John Henry's gait was "characterized by a minimal overlap time - the period when two legs are on the ground - and low action. He doesn't fold his legs up much in preparation for the next stride. As a result, his legs don't have to absorb so much of the shock and vibration that trigger unsoundness."

John Henry's famously exaggerated head bob - described by McAnally as an oil well in action - was actually an important part of the package, since a horse's head naturally rises and falls to counterbalance the rise and fall of the body. John Henry's head bob reduced body movement and allowed him to achieve an unusually long stride for his height of 15.2 hands. The typical horse of that size, according to Pratt, has a 23-foot stride. John Henry's stride measured nearly 25 1/2 feet.

But even with his beneficial stride, his vigorous constitution, and his youthful outlook, John Henry was not immune to the ravages of racing and training. At one time or another, he had to deal with a calcified ankle, an osselet, near-fatal colic, a severe hip muscle pull, strained suspensories, and a blind splint. And yet, with the help of McAnally and his staff, he kept coming back for more.

The thing that finally grounded John Henry as a racehorse, at the age of 10 in July 1985, was damage to the deep flexor tendon, just below and behind his right knee. Even then Dr. Jack Robbins, his most attentive vet, gave John Henry the benefit of the doubt .

"With John Henry," Robbins warned, "if you don't leave the back door open he'll make you eat your words every time."

It was the same story written by John Henry in retirement, turning back the infirmities of age, defying the relentless calendars.

"He was such a fighter, even when his body was giving out, he just kept right on," said Cathy Roby, John Henry's primary caretaker at the Horse Park. "But the last few days, you could tell he was just tired. He was saying, 'Let's get this over with. I don't want to fight anymore.' "

And finally it was okay, at last, to softly close that door. John Henry is going home.