02/27/2006 12:00AM

Vivid memories 25 years later


ARCADIA, Calif. - Under normal circumstances, it would be quite a stretch to find a link between a maiden race on a quiet weekday at Santa Anita and the running of the meet's most important event 25 years ago.

In the fifth on Wednesday, however, take note of a horse named Joe Market, who is making his third start for trainer Lewis Cenicola and owner Marshall Boschetti, then do a quick English-to-Spanish translation. The result is Jose Mercado, the man known far and wide as the groom of two-time Horse of the Year John Henry.

Year after year, from late 1979 to the end of the line in October 1984, John Henry and Jose Mercado were two of the most familiar faces in winner's circle photos from coast to coast. They won 26 stakes together, including two Santa Anita Handicaps, two Arlington Millions, and a Jockey Club Gold Cup.

On the afternoon of March 8, 1981, there were 66,560 fans on the scene for the 44th running of the Santa Anita Handicap. John Henry was reigning as North America's champion grass horse at the time, but when Mercado led him over from the Ron McAnally barn to face Flying Paster, Glorious Song, and King Go Go, it was John Henry's first start on the main track in more than a year - and it didn't matter at all.

"I had no worries about John handling the dirt," said Cenicola, who was John Henry's exercise rider before embarking on a training career of his own. "There was something about the Santa Anita track that he really liked. He had some outstanding works on it. And since he was a little older, a little more mature, I really don't think running on the dirt bothered him much."

Favored at 19-10, John Henry gave Laffit Pincay all the horse he needed to work his way from midpack to the front rank as the field cornered into the stretch. King Go Go had popped clear to a two-length advantage, but John Henry reeled him in with every stride and was a length on top at the end, drawing away, under 128 pounds.

It has been awhile since racing fans have heard the John Henry roar, but those who were there remember it well. It is the same kind of window-rattling sound stirred by Muhammad Ali in the ring, by Michael Jordan soaring through the key, or by Tiger Woods nailing a 3-iron stiff from 250.

The last time the big sound rained down for a particular racehorse was in June 2005, when Afleet Alex returned to the stands after winning the Belmont Stakes. Before that, it was the Smarty Jones ovation after his breathtaking 2004 Preakness.

The difference, though, is significant. Compared to John Henry, Afleet Alex and Smarty Jones were callow, one-hit wonders. Those 66,560 fans at the '81 Handicap knew they were witnessing the real thing, a fairytale made flesh and blood. By March 1981, John Henry had become a horse on whom they could rely, race after race, to deliver an inspiring performance. In recent years, only Cigar comes close.

"I guess they must think he's the underdog," McAnally said that day as he waded through the delirious crowd.

He was, even though the horseplayers showed their undying faith by betting him hard in race after race. John Henry was too small and too plain to stand out in any equine crowd, and it was late in his 4-year-old season before anyone paid much attention to him at all.

The secret was pure dynamics. John Henry was blessed with an efficient, relentless action, described once by Chris McCarron as feeling like he had "wheels instead of legs." John Henry preferred his surfaces tight and leaning toward firm - which is usually what he got at Santa Anita - although he could respond to a challenge even when the footing was not to his liking, as he did in the 1981 Arlington Million on deep turf and in the '81 Jockey Club Gold Cup at sandy Belmont.

At rest, John Henry was proud and private, suffering no fools. Jose Mercado, the man in his stall, was cornered more than once by the old boy - he called him "El Viejo" - but somehow he managed to get his work done and live to tell the tale.

Since 1987, Mercado has worked for Cenicola, rubbing such stakes horses as Natural Nine, Uncaged Fury, Caballo de Oro, and Seahawk Gold. Two months ago, Mercado, 62, underwent knee replacement surgery - imagine all those miles turning left - and he is faced with a similar operation on the other knee when this one heals.

"He's doing okay," Cenicola said. "Jose is staying with his sister in Los Angeles while he recovers. I don't think he'll ever really retire."

In the meantime, Joe Market has yet to indicate he'll be the second coming of John Henry, even though his $6,000 purchase price as a 2-year-old is comparable in today's dollars to the amounts paid for John Henry ($1,200 and $2,200) by his earliest owners.

Joe Market is a gelding, though, just like John Henry. He did manage a distant third in his most recent start, and on Wednesday, Cenicola will try him on the grass for the first time. All he needs now is another $6.5 million in earnings, and the real Joe Market in his stall.