Thursday, August 19, 2010

One in a Million

Saturday is Arlington Million day. Gio Ponti, last year's champion, will be seeking to join the great John Henry as the only two-time winners of that race, which still ranks among the most prestigious grass races in the world. A remembrance of John Henry, who won the first Million in 1981 and repeated in 1984, appears below.


     John Henry was on the small side and nothing much to look at, as befitted the son of an obscure sire with the somewhat comical name Ole Bob Bowers. He was sold as a yearling for only $1,100, and then—to add injury to insult—was gelded in a futile attempt to curb his nasty temper. He spent his early career running at cheap tracks in Louisiana, with little success.
     His record stood at three wins in 17 tries when he was bought by Sam and Dorothy Rubin in May 1978. Shipped to New York, John Henry became a winner from the instant he walked off the van. He won his first start in the Rubins’ colors on May 21 at Aqueduct, paying odds of 12-1. On June 1 at Belmont Park, he raced on grass for the first time and won as he pleased—by 14 lengths. This was the turning point for John Henry. Running on grass and at longer distances, he was an entirely different horse.
     On September 16, John Henry paid his first visit to Arlington Park and notched his first major stakes victory, capturing the Round Table Handicap by 12 lengths. By this time, bettors had taken note of his transformation from claiming also-ran to stakes winner; he left the gate in the Round Table at odds of 1-2.
     John Henry was on his way. He had a good campaign as a four-year-old in 1979, finishing first or second in nine of his 11 starts. The next year John Henry had eight wins, three seconds, and a third in 12 starts; he received the first of his four Eclipse Awards as best male grass horse of the year.

     In 1981, the six-year-old John Henry won five of his first six starts in top-quality stakes competition. Then he came to Arlington for the inaugural running of the Arlington Million, the first race in the world to offer a million-dollar purse. The Chicago area had been hard hit by rain for several days prior to the race on August 30, and the Arlington turf course was very soft and spongy. John Henry had tried soft turf only once before, and had been well beaten on that occasion. To make matters worse, he drew the outermost post position in the Million field, No. 12.
     Sent off at odds of 11-10, John Henry was the heavy favorite of the crowd. But in the early stages of the mile-and-a-quarter race, it was obvious that he did not find the boggy footing to his liking. He was far out of contention for the first half mile. “It was terrible,” said jockey Bill Shoemaker. “He wasn’t handling it at all down the backstretch, and I didn’t think we’d be close. I was trying to urge him a little, without making him sour, but he was struggling.” Key to Content led all the way down the backstretch and into the far turn, with 40-1 longshot The Bart in hot pursuit. John Henry was eighth as they entered the far turn.
     Turning for home, Key to Content yielded command to The Bart. John Henry had moved up to fifth, but he was still six lengths from the front with only a quarter mile left to go. “He began to pick it up on the turn and moved through the upper stretch pretty good,” Shoemaker recalled, “although he was still a beaten horse at the eighth pole. I was trying to hold him together at that point, for he was working very hard and beginning to tire.”
     John Henry, furiously charging on the outside, was giving Shoemaker everything he had—but it didn’t seem to be enough. Only an eighth of a mile from the wire, The Bart was still holding him off by a full length. John Henry kept coming. He edged ever closer to The Bart until, finally, with the cheers of the crowd rising to a crescendo, the two flashed across the finish line together. It was impossible to tell which horse had won. NBC originally identified The Bart as the winner, but the photo-finish pictures confirmed that John Henry had prevailed by a nose.
     “He overcame everything,” trainer Ron McAnally said. “He had the worst post position and this soft turf wasn’t his type of racetrack. But I never saw him run a better race.”
     The little gelding’s thrilling triumph in the first Arlington Million catapulted him to Horse of the Year honors in 1981. He finished the year with eight victories in 10 outings, and earned almost $1.8 million. In 1982, physical problems prevented John Henry from defending his title in the Million; he won twice in only six starts that year. He was on the sidelines again for much of 1983, his eight-year-old season. The third Arlington Million, on August 28, was only his second start of the year. Again made a heavy favorite (at 14-10) by the crowd at Arlington, John Henry was as game as ever in losing by merely a neck to Tolomeo.
     John Henry had perhaps his finest year in 1984, at the ripe old age of nine. He won six of his last seven races, finishing second in the other. He earned a staggering $2,336,650, and was again voted Horse of the Year. Along the way he won his second Arlington Million. A crowd of 39,053 turned out on the perfect afternoon of August 26 to cheer him on. Again the bettors’ favorite at 11-10, John Henry bided his time in third position under Chris McCarron while remaining always within striking range. At the head of the stretch McCarron angled him right to make his customary outside run to the wire, and he easily ran down the pacesetting Royal Heroine to score by a length and three quarters.
     The victory put John Henry over the $5 million mark in career earnings—at a time when no other horse in history had collected even $3 million.

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

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