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John Henry Is Still King of the Geldings

Randy Harvey

June 07, 2003|Randy Harvey

ELMONT, N.Y. — If Funny Cide wins the Belmont Stakes today, earning a $5-million bonus from Visa for sweeping the Triple Crown races, he will surpass John Henry as the richest gelding of all time.

But I've got news for Funny Cide. I knew John Henry, and you, sir, are no John Henry.

Of course, neither was John Henry John Henry as a 3-year-old.

He was an ugly critter with a disposition to match. The first time he was to be sold, at a January auction at Keeneland for bargain basement horses, he rammed his head into the side of his stall and entered the ring a bloody mess. He sold for $1,100.

He was named for John Henry, the steel-drivin' man in the folk song, because he knocked the tubs and buckets off the walls of his stalls. He was gelded -- castrated -- at 2 to make him more manageable, but he never became what you might think of as the family pet.

He did become one heck of a racehorse. That became apparent in the fall of 1979, when he was shipped from Belmont to Santa Anita. Sam Rubin, John Henry's owner, had been thinking of making the move for the winter and had contacted a local trainer, Ron McAnally.

But Rubin wasn't sold until the idea was endorsed by Cohen Johnson, who had the binoculars concession at New York tracks.

In the next two years, John Henry won 17 of 23 races and finished second four times. Even more phenomenal, he won six of his last seven races, all stakes, before retiring in 1984 at 9. He finished with 39 wins in 83 races. He was in the money 63 times.

Although he was more comfortable on grass, he won the Jockey Gold Cup at Belmont and the Santa Anita Handicap on dirt. He won for 10 jockeys, among them Laffit Pincay Jr., Bill Shoemaker, Chris McCarron and Darrel McHargue. Although he ran most of his races in California, he also won in New York, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. He was the nation's horse.

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Jack Knowlton is one of six former high school classmates from a small town in upstate New York who each chipped in $5,000 eight years ago to start a stable for New York-bred horses. They've had modest success and, last year, bought a horse named Funny Cide for $75,000.

In the Belmont Park clubhouse one day this week, Knowlton wore a button on his lapel that read, "NY Loves Funny Cide." He suspects the horse's popularity extends beyond state lines, but he acknowledged there are many races to be run on many tracks before Funny Cide can be compared to John Henry.

"We're in position to do something that he didn't do, and that's win a Triple Crown," Knowlton said. "But even if we win Saturday, time will tell whether what we've got is a great 3-year-old or a horse for the ages."

Winning the Triple Crown might establish him as a horse for the ages, but more important for the sport is whether he runs while he ages.

That is the plan now because, as Knowlton said, "What else are we going to do with him?"

As a gelding, Funny Cide cannot retire into the contended life of a stud, as Secretariat did while still a 3-year-old, and the two most recent Triple Crown winners, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, did at 4. He will have to race for his keep, as other famous geldings such as Kelso, Forego and John Henry did. Kelso and Forego both ran at 8.

"We want to go to all the big races," Knowlton said, specifically mentioning the Santa Anita Handicap.

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Horse racing has been waiting a long time for an opening on the inside that leads to a revival in popularity among the masses. Tim Smith, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Assn., said this could be it, a Triple Crown opportunity followed a month later by the opening of the movie "Seabiscuit."

One question is whether Funny Cide has the personality to capture the nation's imagination as John Henry did.

He appears to have the same competitiveness. Trainer Barclay Tagg could have been talking about John Henry this week when he spoke of Funny Cide's big ego.

McCarron, who rode John Henry in his final 14 races, winning eight, said the horse didn't believe he could be beaten. There's a famous story about the Hollywood Gold Cup in 1981, when John Henry finished fourth but still tried to force his way into the winner's circle.

"He intimidated other horses," McCarron said. "He went up against better and faster horses that he just overpowered. None could outfight him."

But John Henry also had star power that has yet to be seen from Funny Cide.

"You'd have to lead him from the barn 45 minutes before he was scheduled to train because he liked to stand and pose for photographers or fans with cameras," McCarron said. "He'd walk another 50 yards and stand and pose again. It was a problem for all the exercise boys because they had other horses to train. Of course, once he started having the success he did, all those antics were tolerated."

John Henry is 28 now, in retirement at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.

McCarron visited him not so long ago. John Henry ignored him for a while, then literally chased him away.

No one can be certain whether John Henry was simply being his old irascible self or showing his funny cide.

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Randy Harvey can be reached at randy.harvey@latimes.com.

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