09/21/2007 12:00AM

September song plays for a champion

EmailIt's tough to have a friend on the ropes and out of reach. Helpless and selfish describes the feeling, as if you could do any good by being there. At some point, though, it becomes okay to let go, and to trust the people in charge.

The people taking care of John Henry at the Kentucky Horse Park are first-rate, dedicated, and downright worshipful of the grizzled ghost of a champion who earned seven Eclipse Awards during an 83-race career that ran from May of 1977 to October of 1984.

They also are honestly surprised the old boy made it to the morning of Sept. 20, especially after last week's awful bout with dehydration and borderline kidney failure, since a 32-year-old horse who needs intravenous fluids to survive is usually only a step or two away from the big sleep.

John Henry has rallied, though. Rallied again, just as he did in the last decade when colic and then Cushing's disease began to make old age a pain in the rump.

"He's a real fighter," said Kathy Hopkins, director of equine operations at the Horse Park. "We're all just real happy he's rebounded, eating well, and actually banging on his door, demanding to go on his walks."

Such sentiments are echoed by the other Horse Park personnel closest to John Henry. But make no mistake. They are not delusional. When Hopkins says John Henry is doing "great," she qualifies her assessment by pointing out the hard and obvious facts.

"We're looking at the same type of treatment you'd give a human when they were heading up in the 100s," Hopkins said. "To be honest, John has outlived even a lot of the two-dollar bettors that supported him throughout his career. Right now we're looking after his quality of life and doing everything we can. In the end, it's pretty much in John's hands."

So what else is new? As a racehorse, John Henry went his own way, defying both logic and expectations. He was slow to evolve, then reluctant to leave center stage.

By a strange quirk of the calendar, John Henry ended up with an unbeaten career record during his many Septembers. He was a perfect 6 for 6, beginning with his very first stakes win in the Lafayette Futurity at Evangeline Downs on Sept. 5, 1977.

This Saturday, Sept. 22, is the 23rd anniversary of John Henry's 1984 victory in the Turf Classic at Belmont Park, at the age of 9, an achievement that went a long way toward nailing down his second Horse of the Year championship. The Turf Classic is now named in honor of retired Daily Racing Form columnist Joe Hirsch.

"Never before in this century - and possibly any century - had a Thoroughbred of that age done as well, so consistently, against the best horses of his time," Hirsch wrote in the American Racing Manual covering the '84 campaign.

As a reporter, you tend to count your good fortune by the stories that have come your way. John Henry, to my everlasting gratitude, fell right into my lap.

And so it was that I could spend any morning I wanted of those many years he trained in Southern California, following him on his eternal strolls down the Santa Anita stable road, with exercise rider Lewis Cenicola perched softly on his back, singing, "You are the sunshine of my life . . . ," then finally hitting the racetrack with a triumphant, "Tally ho!"

Or I could show up at Ron McAnally's Hollywood barn on a quiet July morning, with John Henry freshly returned from winning the 1981 Sword Dancer at Belmont Park, approach his stall and dare to give him a victory hug, then wonder aloud that the trip must have been tough, since John Henry was not prone to tolerating such displays of affection.

"That's the acepromazine they gave him for the flight," McAnally said, flashing a grin. "I'd finish before it wears off if I were you."

And I could stand over McAnally's shoulder, as the trainer did his work in the cramped confines of the old Hollywood Park saddling tunnel, while holding my son, nine months old at the time, and whispering in his ear, "That's John Henry. Remember this day. And be careful, he bites."

On that particular day, July 4, 1983, John Henry was returning triumphantly to the races at the age of 8 in the American Handicap, some seven months after his near-death experience with colic during a trip to Tokyo for the 1982 Japan Cup. Even more significantly, the American was the first time John Henry was ridden by Chris McCarron.

McCarron rode John in his final 14 races. They won 8 of them, including 6 of their last 7 together, highlighted by that '84 Turf Classic.

"His stride was so rare," said McCarron, who operates his North American Racing Academy out of the Kentucky Horse Park. "He had such an incredibly powerful, smooth motion, and he was so damn comfortable all the time. He was exceptional in more ways than just getting across the ground in a hurry."

McCarron has been among those paying John Henry regular visits as the old boy has struggled recently.

"It's a tough sight to see right now," McCarron said. "It is what it is. But at least he's getting the best care he could get anywhere. He's getting the treatment a legend deserves."