02/20/2006 1:00AM

Sam Rubin, owner of all-time great John Henry, dies at 91


ARCADIA, Calif. - Sam Rubin, who owned seven-time Eclipse Award winner John Henry, a star in the early 1980's, died Feb. 13 of natural causes in Palm Beach, Fla., according to his son, Tom Levinson. Rubin was 91.

Services were held in New York on Feb. 16, Levinson said.

Rubin had been hospitalized in early February.

In the late 1970's, Rubin, the owner of a bicycle import company in New York who had been a racing fan for decades, bought John Henry for $25,000.

John Henry had a checkered start to his career, racing for allowances purses as small as $2,400 in Louisiana before steadily improving. Under Rubin's ownership, John Henry rose to the top of Thoroughbred racing.

Trained by Lefty Nickerson and later by Ron McAnally, John Henry once held the title of racing's richest horse, with career earnings of $6,597,947. He won 39 of 83 starts, including 15 Grade 1 stakes.

Racing for the Dotsam Stable of Rubin and his wife, Dorothy, John Henry won Thoroughbred racing's first $1 million race, the Arlington Million at Arlington Park in 1981. Racing in an era before the Breeders' Cup, John Henry won consecutive runnings of the Santa Anita Handicap in 1981 and 1982, the second victory coming after a nose loss to Perrault, who was disqualified and placed second.

John Henry was named Horse of the Year in 1981 and 1984. He was named outstanding grass horse in 1980-81 and 1983-84, and outstanding handicap horse in 1981.

"It's as if somebody wrote a fairy story and put us in it," Sam Rubin told Reader's Digest in the 1980's. "John has given us a life we never imagined in our wildest dreams."

John Henry, 31, resides at the Kentucky Horse Park. The Rubins traveled to Kentucky in October 2004 to visit him

"They really enjoyed seeing John," Levinson said. "They hadn't seen him since he was really retired to the park. They spent a lot of time with the horse."

The family asked that in lieu of flowers, a donation be made to the Kentucky Horse Park. In addition to his wife and son, Rubin is survived by a daughter, Phyllis Leighton, as well as several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.