LEXINGTON, Ky. -- John Henry wasn't the friendliest horse -- far from it. However, his ability to turn a humble pedigree into the resume of a champion made him a prime attraction at the Kentucky Horse Park, where he spent his final 22 years.
"We would always bring kids to John Henry's paddock and say, 'Here is a great champion,'" said John Nicholson, the park's executive director.
Grumpy yet beloved, the thoroughbred great died Monday after 32 years of defying odds -- both in racing success and longevity.
The two-time Horse of the Year, who earned more than $6.5 million before retiring as a gelding to the park where he became an icon, was euthanized Monday night in his paddock there.
He survived several illnesses over the years but never recovered from a recent bout with dehydration, in which he experienced kidney failure that forced him to receive intravenous fluids. The horse was rapidly losing weight.
"John's always been known for his biting and kicking," said Cathy Roby, barn manager at the horse park's Hall of Champions where he was stabled. "He had gotten to the point where he really wasn't trying, where he just wasn't John anymore. He was just tired and he was ready to go."
Mike Beyer, the veterinarian who tended to John Henry until the end, said euthanasia was the only choice.
"We didn't want to get to the point where he didn't have dignity," Beyer said.
John Henry was retired 22 years ago to the park, where he was beloved by the public and, along with stablemate Cigar, one of the park's biggest attractions.
Foaled March 9, 1975, and an average runner early in his career, John Henry was the highest money-earning thoroughbred in history when he retired in 1985.
The gelded son of Old Bob Bowers out of Once Double won four Grade I races and Horse of the Year honors at ages 6 and 9, and collected seven Eclipse awards from 1980-84.
"What can I say about the legendary John Henry that has not already been said," Chris McCarron, who rode John Henry in 14 of his last races, said in a statement from the park. "John meant the world to my family and me. Everywhere he raced, his presence doubled the size of a normal race track crowd. He did so much for racing, even after he retired, that he will be impossible to replace. He will be sorely missed but forever in our hearts."
John Henry was loved not for a tremendous talent but because he was a fighter who would battle not to lose at any cost.
Although he never won a Triple Crown race, he was successful at the highest levels of competition on the dirt and the turf.
In his career, John Henry earned 39 victories, 15 seconds and nine-thirds in 83 starts and earned $6,597,947. He was inducted into thoroughbred racing's Hall of Fame in 1990.
John Henry was called "small," ''ugly" and "bad-tempered" as a foal. He was sold at the January mixed sale at Keeneland for $1,100. He soon became known more for his disposition than his racing ability, often tearing buckets and tubs off the wall of his stall and stomping them flat.
He was sold to Harold Snowden of Lexington for $2,200 in 1977. Snowden chose to geld John Henry with the hope it would calm him and allow him to focus on racing.
He changed hands two more times until native New Yorker Sam Rubin and his wife, Dorothy, bought him for $25,000 sight unseen over the phone. John Henry's new trainer, Bob Donato, thought the horse would fare well on grass, and John Henry won six of 19 starts as a 3-year-old.
As a 4-year-old, John Henry won four of 11 races for trainer Lefty Nickerson. The following year, John Henry was sent to work with trainer Ron McAnally in California and his career blossomed.
McAnally trained John Henry with "carrots, apples and love," the horse park said. He visited during the horse's retirement and had seen him as recently as September, bringing the animal's favorite cookies and carrots, the park said.
John Henry only two-time winner at Arlington
John Henry brought the inaugural running of the Arlington Million into the national spotlight with a nerve-wracking stretch run victory on Aug. 26 1981.
Perhaps it is the heart and spirit John Henry showed on the race track that kept the $1,100 yearling going well beyond the life expectancy of most horses.
Legendary jockey Bill Shoemaker and John Henry edged The Bart and Eddie Delahousaye in a stirring stretch duel by a whisker in a race still regarded as one of the greatest in North American turf history.
John Henry and The Bart's eye-popping finish is immortalized into a bronze stature overlooking the Arlington Park paddock.
But John Henry, once claimed for $5,000 before being taken over by renowned West Coast trainer Ron McAnally, was hardly through competing on the Arlington lawn.
He returned for the 1983 Million and ran second by a neck to longshot winner Tolomeo.
In the 1984 edition, at the remarkable age of 9, John Henry was back in the Million winner's circle with a gallant victory over the filly champion Royal Herione.
John Henry remains the only two-time winner of the Arlington Million.
-- John Leusch