The Secret of the Ghetto Gelding

This article about the racehorse John Henry appeared as original content on in January 2013.

The 500 mourners sat respectfully in folding chairs in front of the gravesite as the former governor eulogized the departed. A guestbook was open. Refreshments, including chocolate cake, awaited attendees for afterward. Flowers were everywhere: chrysanthemums, carnations and sunflowers … as well as a wreath made up of carrots and lettuce. The funeral was for a horse.

When I moved back several years ago to Lexington, Kentucky, where I grew up, after 20 years on the West Coast, I promised myself I would take advantage of local events and scenery. So when I read in the newspaper one morning about a funeral at the Kentucky Horse Park for the history-making racehorse John Henry, I knew that was one way to fulfill my promise. What I learned about John Henry in the months after the funeral intrigued me about the feelings and interior lives of animals as much as Charlotte’s Web did when I read the book as a child.

But first: the funeral. It was October 19, 2007. The spot upon which the mourners were gathered looked out over the Kentucky Horse Park. Horses dotted the low hills. In the vault of the sky, cumulous clouds lined up neat as index cards. I was at, as the head of the horse park put it, “the highest place of honor in the known horse universe.”

To the left of the podium was the gravesite, and in the middle of the bedecked earth a single devil’s food chocolate donut with rainbow sprinkles. John Henry was a chocolate freak.

John Henry was a moody, undersized gelding with bad knees named after the 19th century folk hero John Henry, “the steel-driving man.” The horse had a mercurial personality: content in the fields, aggressive and mean when confined. He was always considered damaged goods because of his knees, and was bought and sold many times before ending up in the hands of a man named Sam Rubin and his trainer, Ron McAnally. Under those two, he became the first thoroughbred to earn over $6 million. Rubin was a Russian immigrant and bicycle salesman who would come to love John Henry so much, he would hold a bar mitzvah for the horse when he turned 13.

Former Kentucky governor Martha Layne Collins was already speaking when I got to the funeral. “I can remember when John Henry arrived at the airport (to retire here in the 1980s),” she said. “As he came down the ramp he stopped at the bottom and did what he always did. He looked around for photographers. When they came by, he showed them his best side.”

John Henry was a ghetto gelding who succeeded in a world where pedigree is everything. People wept as Collins talked. The crowd ranged from moms with kids and dogs to horse people in jeans, boots, and tweed blazers.

When Collins finished, John Nicholson, executive director of the horse park, took the podium. John Henry, he said, “was the horse nobody wanted.” His life was about “the triumph of his spirit over his physical constraints. The triumph of his will over those who doubted him. He was our talisman, our good luck charm.”

“You do not have to have a great pedigree,” said Nicholson. “You do not have to be born into royalty, or have great advantages. It’s OK if not everyone believes in you. With love and confidence and determination and belief, you can achieve greatness.”

A little later, he said, “John Henry selected his friends carefully. No one could ever accuse him of being overabundant in his affections.” Everyone laughed.

John Henry was 32 when he died, and had lived at the horse park 22 years. He was a field trip for teachers with kids from crummy neighborhoods and a vacation pilgrimage for dreamers and strivers and anyone going through a bad patch.

“The legacy of this horse manifested, itself is not yet realized,” Nicholson said, finishing his eulogy. “… As he walks in his celestial paddock, he waits for you.”

Nicholson turned, looked at the grave, and held out his arm. “For the last time, I’ll say, ‘Ladies and gentleman, I give you John Henry.’ ”

The bagpipes played.

When I got home, I dug up the John Henry obituary, by racing writer Maryjean Wall, published in the Lexington Herald-Leader several days earlier. I love underdogs, and I knew far more about super horses like Secretariat and Man o’ War than John Henry. The obituary said the thoroughbred was the last of a triumvirate of geldings who dominated racing from the 1960s to the 1980s. The other two were Kelso and Forego. What was amazing about these three was they set track records while carrying weight of up to 130 pounds, at least 10 more than U.S. weight requirements are today. Year after year, they beat younger horses in every type of race you can imagine, and John Henry was one of only two horses to win an advanced stakes race at 9 years old. He raced for so long, people thought he would race forever.

John Henry was born March 9, 1975, on Golden Chance Farm near Paris, Kentucky. As a yearling, he was sold with a bloody face for $1,100 at Keeneland; he bashed his head in his stall right before being led into the sales ring. Some of his most phenomenal wins were under jockey Chris McCarron in 1983.

But after I finished reading the obituary, I was still left wondering exactly how John Henry had become a winner, what caused his transformation. What had McAnally, McCarron or anyone else done to turn the horse around? Did they use tough love like Mickey to Rocky Balboa? You’re gonna eat lightnin’; you’re gonna crap thunder. I was also curious about how the various descriptions I had read and heard so far of his grumpy, hostile personality fit with the picture of him as a cherished equine luminary. I headed to the library where I found “John Henry” by Steve Haskin, published by Eclipse Press in 2001 (and which I recommend for further reading on the horse). From Haskin, I learned the following:

John Henry was the first horse to win $3 million and $4 million before becoming the first to win $6 million. He was named one of People magazine’s most intriguing people (dubbed a “geriatric marvel”) and did the Today show. His pedigree wasn’t common, but it wasn’t inspiring. His sire was Ole Bob Bowers, the mare Once Double. Ole Bob Bowers was an unpleasant, at times vicious, stallion who won six of 30 career starts. At the Tanforan Handicap, he equaled the world record for a mile and an eighth. Once Double was large and big-boned; Double Jay, the champion broodmare sire, her father. Despite their heritages, neither of John Henry’s parents had produced champions. Golden Chance Farm paid a $500 stud fee for Ole Bob Bowers.

John and Jean Callaway were the first to buy John Henry. The couple owned a horse farm outside Louisville. They were relatively new to the industry, and bought him based on Double Jay’s lineage. They knew nothing about Ole Bob Bowers and John Henry’s inherited meanness. Haskin writes:

It … didn’t take (John) Callaway long to discover the colt’s erratic and
nasty disposition. In describing him, he used words like retarded, crazy, and weird. The colt usually took out his anger on his water buckets and feed tubs, ripping them off the wall and stomping on them.

According to Haskin, outside the stall, the Callaways were astounded by how he glided across the field. But they missed the potential in his gait. As the colt grew, so did his knee deformity; the condition was one where the leg looks as if it arcs backward, not forward. That, coupled with his unattractive personality, had him for sale again a year later. John Henry then went through a series of owners before being unloaded for $25,000, on Sam Rubin, who was then 63. Rubin knew little about owning racehorses and bought John Henry for the action and thrills. The gelding started to win under two trainers, Bob Donato, who moved him from dirt to grass, and Lefty Nickerson. Sam Rubin eventually met McAnally, a California trainer, and finally, John Henry started winning consistently and never seemed to stop. He was horse of the year in 1981 and 1984, and finally retired at 10, the world’s richest thoroughbred. Haskin writes that the well-known trainer Charlie Whittingham was asked once whether he thought he could ever beat John Henry. Whittingham, then 72, said at that point in his life, he was simply trying to outlive him.

Haskin says that Ron McAnally helped change John Henry because he identified with him – McAnally was sent to an orphanage at 5 after his mom died. McAnally figured the best way to tame the beast was tender, loving care and treats. He also gave him his independence – letting John Henry take the lead during exercise runs, meandering as much as he wanted, and McAnally instructed McCarron to let John Henry do whatever the horse thought was best on the track.

But then I came upon the matter of the famous Equus article of May 1985. Haskin’s description of John Henry’s experience with a psychic intrigued me so much I drove out to the Keeneland library to get the original piece from the magazine:

EQUUS Special Report:
The Anatomy of a Winner
Gait, Heart and Sheer Will Combine
To Ensure Unparalled Success

The magazine brought together a team of experts to measure what made the horse so superior. From an engineering perspective, he was called “superb.” His bone density was above average, his gait hyper efficient, his heart large for his size. Equus medical editor and veterinarian Matthew Mackay-Smith said he believed the animal’s sense of self was enormous. Equus also hired an astrologer who found his castration the pivotal event of his life, and a parapsychologist, Nancy Regalmuto, who assessed John Henry’s physical and emotional selves. It was the latter’s account in Equus that intrigued me the most.

In the article, Regalmuto was described as a national sports handicapper, former professional gambler, and practicing psychic who used her hands to “feel” a horse’s physical capacity and problems, current, future, and past. She also did a mental reading where she wordlessly asked the gelding questions and “interpreted” his response.

Regalmuto said that John Henry told her he didn’t want to run and excel; he felt he had to in order to save his skin. He was terrified of getting injured and recounted a story that occurred at one of his first barns, during some of his most rebellious days as a youngster. There, another horse, described as a black bay with a touch of white on his forehead, became his closest friend. The confidante horse couldn’t run well although he tried. He used to lecture John Henry to accept the reality of racing and his life. John Henry “told” Regalmuto: “He used to tell me it didn’t matter how long I fought, that my life was not my own and that the choice would not be mine, but ultimately a human choice. I didn’t believe him. I thought I could win.”

One day, according to Equus, John Henry’s friend was put to sleep in front of him and the rest of the horses. It was then, John Henry relayed, he realized how “heartless and cold” humans could be. He told Regalmuto he grew up after that and realized he was living on borrowed time. At the races, John Henry was known for making noises to other horses as he made his way back and forth from the track. He told Regalmuto he was either praising them on their win or advising them on what they did wrong. He was upset if they lost because he wanted them to know what he knew: “We have no real choices but only one path to follow – pleasing humans. The only real win we have is our own survival.”

I wondered why Equus, a well-respected publication, would risk being branded flaky by hiring a psychic (and an astrologer). After I read about Regalmuto’s “conversation” with John Henry, I wanted to know more about her. Little was found on the Web, save for the fact she was interviewed for a 1997 book called “Communicating With Animals” by former Washington Post assistant city editor Arthur Myers, and she might be living in New York or Florida, or both. Then I checked library databases. A 1985 Florida Sun-Sentinel article described how she shocked Seattle Slew trainer Billy Turner by correctly diagnosing a mysterious malaise afflicting a colt he owned as heavy metal toxicity, as well as an ovarian cyst in a problematic filly. Another trainer, Tom Skiffington, attested to the confounding accuracy of Regalmuto’s skill and said other trainers were scared both of what she might tell them about a horse’s future, and of being labeled loopy by using her. Other articles spoke of her ability; she called it a gift that had nothing to do with the occult.

For days after I read Regalmuto’s account about John Henry, I wondered if it could be true. After John Henry’s funeral, hundreds of mourners’ condolences were listed on the Kentucky Horse Park’s Web site; many were moving, some sentimental. Few were like what a fan named Patricia wrote “… He let us think we were in control, when all the time he was in control and still is.”

Months after the funeral, I took my dog, Daisy, out to the Kentucky Horse Park to roam. It was spring. We walked up to John Henry’s gravesite over acres of fields dotted with dandelions and wild violets. Few people were at the park, and no one at John Henry’s grave. Inside the barn was Kathy Roby, one of a group of park employees who had taken care of John Henry during his retirement. Roby has shoulder- length brown hair touched with gray, and the capable way about her many horsewomen possess. I asked her about the Equus article and Regalmuto; she didn’t believe any of it.

“If that’s what she thought, that’s her thing,” said Roby, “but I don’t think John was afraid of anyone or anything. John was John. He did was he liked.”

Roby said John Henry was nasty and sadistic almost all the time: When the crew for the movie Seabiscuit was filming at the park, jockey Chris McCarron came out for the day. John Henry charged him; McCarron almost got seriously injured, Roby said. Another time, the horse trapped a female member of the barn crew in a corner of his stable, toying with her because he knew she was scared of him.

I asked Roby why she thought so many people loved him. She said she thought many people didn’t know how mean he actually was, and most of the visitors, especially older people, admired him because he’d never back down from a challenge. It gave them strength to deal with whatever was going on in their lives, she said. She added that the exception to all this came whenever John Henry got sick. Then he would be sweet, at times, even loving.

Roby said she thought that at the core of John Henry’s personality was a fear that he couldn’t trust anyone – even McAnally, who would come from out West, where he lives, to feed him apples, carrots, and sugar. But after being fed, the horse would bite him.

Roby gave me McAnally’s phone number, and I called, reaching him at the Santa Anita track. “It’s hard to say,” he replied diplomatically when I asked him about Regalmuto’s account. “A lot of people say they can do things; how does anyone really know?” When I asked him if his own past had made him a better trainer for John Henry, he said only, “We both came from humble beginnings. I just tried to treat him kindly.”

“When he left, I tell you, everybody in the barn wanted to cry,” he said of when the horse was retired to the Kentucky Horse Park. “I flew with him on the airplane. He just stood there. He let out a whinny like I’ve never heard before. It was like: ‘I’ve done all this and now you’re going to leave me?’ ”

John Henry was complicated. Maybe he changed because he finally learned to trust someone, or maybe he was just manipulating people around him to control his fate, or neither or both. I think about how he could be mean and hateful and sweet and loving, calculating, changeable and afraid, and in that way, he was just like everybody else.

Leslie Guttman is the author of Equine ER (Eclipse Press), a nonfiction account of a year inside one of the country’s top hospitals for horses. She has written for such publications as the New York Times and the Washington Post, and her work appears regularly on public radio. One of her public radio essays appears in the book This I Believe: Life Lessons (Wiley).