10/11/2007 12:00AM

Riders fondly remember John Henry

EmailChris McCarron knew the day was coming, but that didn't make it any easier. When he learned Monday night of the death of John Henry, McCarron thought back more than 20 years, to when he rode John Henry in the final 14 starts of the great gelding's career, including the 1984 campaign that brought John Henry his second Horse of the Year title at the unprecedented age of 9.

"That's what's probably the most impressive and captivating thing about him, that he maintained that incredible form right up until the time he was retired," McCarron said Wednesday from Lexington, Ky., where he oversees a jockey school that is only furlongs from where John Henry lived out his retirement at the Kentucky Horse Park. "There have been horses that have raced at 8, 9 - not as many now as before - but not at that level."

John Henry raced 83 times, and was ridden by 17 different jockeys. He had 12 different riders for his first 39 races in a career that began at Jefferson Downs in Louisiana. But when he came to California in the fall of 1979, and started developing into a top-class stakes horse under trainer Ron McAnally, he was ridden by Darrel McHargue (11 times), Angel Cordero Jr. (twice), Laffit Pincay Jr. (7), Bill Shoemaker (10), and McCarron.

McCarron rode John Henry to his Arlington Million victory in 1984, which avenged a narrow, disappointing loss the previous year.

"I felt bad in 1983, because I lacked the knowledge of how he liked to run, and I think I cost him the race," McCarron said. "That was only my second race with him. What I learned is that he was a momentum builder. It took him a good furlong before he was completely in high gear. I was laying second to Nijinsky's Secret, lapped on him, and he carried me out and let Tolomeo up inside. Just past the wire, John glimpsed Tolomeo and took off again.

"The next year, I stayed behind Nijinsky's Secret, and when he drifted out, I only had one horse to get by, Royal Heroine. That was a real feeling of vindication."

McCarron said John Henry "would double the size of the crowd wherever he went, whether it was the Meadowlands, Oak Tree, or Hollywood Park."

"There was always so much excitement surrounding him," McCarron said. "To have shared that with him 14 times was just awesome."

Pincay rode John Henry to his first Santa Anita Handicap victory, in 1981, and vividly remembered two other courageous efforts by the horse.

"He was a really, really fun horse to ride," Pincay said from his home in Arcadia, Calif., near Santa Anita. "There was one race at Hollywood Park" - the 1981 Hollywood Turf Invitational - "where he was laying second, but he didn't feel the same under me. I didn't think he was going to win. Down the stretch, I could feel he was not the same horse. I just kind of held him together with a hand ride, and he got up. He won on guts that day."

In the 1980 Oak Tree Invitational, Pincay said he thought John Henry was hopelessly beaten at the top of the stretch.

"I was so [angry]," Pincay said. "I couldn't get through. He was about eight lengths behind" - the chart says 7 1/2, such is the precision of Pincay's memory - "and I finally found an opening, and he just flew home. He went so fast."

Cordero only rode John Henry in two races, both times in New York, where McAnally would hand off training duties to Lefty Nickerson.

"There was one day I was supposed to work him, and he must have stopped 19 times going to the track," Cordero said from New York. "Every time he saw somebody walking by he thought they were going to take his picture.

"He was one of the best we've ever had. He'd win on grass, dirt, West Coast, East Coast. He'd win on the lead, come from behind. He could handle anything. He ran until he was old, fought every good horse that was around then. He's on my list of the best of all time."

Group raising funds for memorial

The Old Friends nonprofit equine retirement program, Kentucky Horse Park, and longtime park volunteer Bill Oster are teaming up to raise funds for John Henry's memorial.

The 32-year-old gelding, a five-time champion and two-time Horse of the Year, died Monday night at the park, where he had lived since 1985.

The proposed memorial would feature a landscaped area outside John Henry's former paddock at the park's Hall of Champions, with a place for visitors to sit, as well as a sculpted monument by equine artist Shelley Hunter.

Old Friends has opened a John Henry Memorial Fund at Citizen's Commerce Bank in Kentucky to receive donations for the memorial. Donations can be made payable to the John Henry Memorial Fund and sent to Old Friends, 1841 Paynes Depot Road, Georgetown, KY 40324.

- additional reporting

by Glenye Cain Oakford