Famous Thoroughbred John Henry arrived at Lexington’s Blue Grass Field, now called Blue Grass Airport, on Aug. 26, 1985. The two-time Eclipse Horse of the Year was coming home to Lexington for his retirement at the Kentucky Horse Park.
John Henry, a 10-year-old gelding at the time of his retirement, was taken to the Horse Park, where waiting there was a shiny new stall made of oak and brass in a barn named “The Hall of Champions.” John Henry, the oldest horse to win a Grade 1 race — at age 9 — lived at the Horse Park for 22 years. He died in October 2007 and was buried near the Hall of Champions at a spot in front of his paddock.
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From the Herald-Leader archives
Below is the story on his homecoming that ran on the front page of the sports section in the Herald-Leader on Aug. 27, 1985.
Headline: John Henry back home in Kentucky
Story by Gene McLean Herald-Leader staff writer
As soon as John Henry’s hooves hit the ground at Blue Grass Airport last night, a few people clapped. A few hundred cameras clicked. Gov. Martha Layne Collins smiled.
John Henry, looking his dapper self, just perked his ears and pranced.
“He knows that he’s home,” said Ron McAnally, who trained, cared for and loved John Henry for the past seven years, as he watched his friend stretch his legs. “He always perks those ears when he feels at home.”
Yesterday, John Henry, racing’s all-time money winner and most recent hero, returned to his old Kentucky home - Lexington. It is here that he was born and raised.
He was taken to his newest Kentucky home - the Kentucky Horse Park. Waiting there was a bright, shiny, new stall made of oak and brass in a barn named aptly enough “The Hall of Champions.”
‘’We’re delighted to have John Henry back home to Kentucky,” Gov. Collins said. “John Henry is one of the greatest; he’s a champion; and he’s an attraction. People will come to see him and, I think, what with his personality, he’ll enjoy seeing his fans. I think everybody is happy.”
At the least, John Henry and his entourage seemed to be. “I feel wonderful,” said McAnally, who accompanied John Henry on his journey from California along with two dozen carrots, a box of sugar and some other goodies for his favorite horse. “I’m very proud that he is going to be here.
‘’But, needless to say, it’s going to be a little rough on me for awhile. I’ll miss him. But I’ll always come to visit him. He belongs to the people.”
So he does. Today, if he feels ready, John Henry will go about his new career - resident superstar. He’ll parade at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. He’ll go to his paddock - if he wants. He’ll stay in his stall - if he so desires.
He’ll begin retirement.
Then, on Saturday, the Horse Park will be opened to all free of charge. It will be an official welcome. It’s being billed as “Welcome Home John Henry Day.”
‘’He must have millions of fans. He’s a legend. And, I think we ought to be celebrating that we’ve got him,” said Lee Cholak, the new executive director of the Horse Park. “I think his fans will come to see him. The only thing better than having John Henry here would be to have him racing again.”
It was only a little more than a month ago that retirement seemed the furthest thing away for John Henry, the king of the turf. He was gearing up for another race at Hollywood Park.
But after a workout, he came back to the barn with a slight limp. X-rays showed some swelling. Doctors feared he had bowed a tendon. Anyway, at age 10, owner Sam Rubin and McAnally agreed: it was time for John Henry to rest.
The only question that remained was where. Rubin had promised a friend that John Henry would go to his secluded farm in New Jersey. Some Kentuckians wanted him here - at home; at the Park.
Thanks to some talking that was about as fast as John Henry by Keeneland President James E. “Ted” Bassett III, Kentucky won. John Henry is here.
‘’I played a very minimal role,” said Bassett, as he watched John Henry climb into a private 18-wheel horse van. “We just assured them John Henry would have a proper home.”
John Henry will probably get a short vacation from the park in October. In the middle of the month, John Henry is scheduled to gallop on Keeneland’s new turf course.
He ran at Keeneland once before - on the dirt, when his name was mud. On April 11, 1978, John Henry, owned then by Hal Snowden, was entered in an $8,500 allowance race. That day, John Henry raced fourth, behind Johnny Blade, Schottis, and Jester Beau. He won $425.
‘’We’ll make his stay better this time,” Bassett said. “Hopefully we’ll have him around Oct. 18. Just to have him come back to Kentucky will serve as a great catalyst for the Horse Park. He is our most famous alumni.”
Indeed, John Henry was one of racing’s greats. Although he was sold or traded six times for amounts of $1,100, $2,200, $7,500, $10,000, a couple of 2-year- olds, and $25,000 in his first three years. He went on to win more than $6 million.
‘’I think he’s the people’s horse,” McAnally said. “He came up from the ghettos. He was virtually unwanted in the beginning and now he’s made a name for himself.
‘’We have a big poster of John Henry hanging in our tack room. The caption on it was ‘Some are born great. Others achieve greatness.’ I think that pretty well sums it up for John Henry. I’m glad he’s here. Now racing and horse fans will get to see and touch one of the greats.”