Racing Hall of Famer John Henry was known as a horse with great heart and now, thanks to his fans, he will be remembered that way always.
A half-life-size bronze of the late gelding was dedicated Wednesday at his grave in the Kentucky Horse Park on the one-year anniversary of his death, with a standing-room-only crowd at the Hall of Champions pavilion where he starred for 22 years.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
The 32-year-old son of Ole Bob Bowers was euthanized Oct. 8, 2007, after fighting kidney failure for months.
He won hearts on track and off. Many of the 500 who came to mourn him last year never saw him race but fell in love with the cantankerous old campaigner who rose from humble beginnings.
Born at the Golden Chance Farm in Paris, he started as an $1,100 yearling but went on to win a then-record $6.6 million in his eight-year career, most of it for New Yorker Sam Rubin, who bought him for $25,000. Year in, year out, John Henry was one of the surest things in racing, winning 39 times in 83 starts; only 20 times did he finish out of the money.
He was Horse of the Year twice — in 1981 and 1984; champion older horse in 1981; champion male grass horse four times — in 1980, 1981, 1983 and 1984. And he won 30 stakes races, including Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Hollywood Turf Cup, and the Arlington Million twice.
On his death last year, thousands of fans wrote letters, signed online memory books, sent e-mails and flowers.
Now fans have contributed in ways big and small to the bronze, which was sculpted by Shelley Hunter, executive director of the American Academy of Equine Art, with headquarters at the park.
About $35,000, all from fan contributions, has been raised so far for the memorial, which cost $60,000 to build.
But the money has been the least of it.
Hunter said that after last year's service, people began approaching her with mementos, asking whether they could be melted down into the statue.
The first was a gold cross and chain. "I said I would ask," she said.
As she sculpted the clay model on public view at the park, more and more things came in: religious medals, dozens of pennies, dimes and quarters with things like "We love you, John" written on them, even a Marine's dog tags.
"By the time I got done, I had a double handful of things," Hunter said.
Too much, it turns out, for the foundry to cast into the metal.
"I didn't want to disappoint all those people. They were my inspiration," she said.
So she came up with an alternative.
They built a stainless-steel box to hold all those memories, and before the statue was sealed they welded it into John Henry's chest, right where his heart would be.
"All those good wishes, and all that love, are locked in there forever," she said. "As long as the statue stands."