Sunday, March 20, 2011
A Fine Racing Bio, Bar None
I don't know how well Chris Koby knows his way around a 3-to-1 manhattan, or whether I could drink at the Amber Bistro, come back six months later and have him say, "Same way?" but I do know his fingerprints are all over "John Henry: The Steel Driving Racehorse," and what's a fine filmmaker like this doing in a job like that? First time out of the box, well under 30, Koby has artfully reminded us who John Henry was and where he came from. In case time has passed anybody by, he was one tough racehorse, and so far on the wrong side of the tracks that you couldn't have found him with a flashlight during his salad days.
"The first time I saw him," trainer Ron McAnally tells Koby about half-way through the 82-minute film, "he had long hair and his head was down. I hate to say this, but he looked like a miniature donkey."
In "John Henry," there's room for both the bigshots and the supporting players. Looie Cenicola, his exercise rider, is shown patiently taking the cantankerous horse to the track for a morning gallop. John Henry stops every few steps, part nature lover, part waiting for his closeup. Finally, an exasperated Cenicola tries to giddyup the horse and says, "They're goin' to shut the track on us, daddy, if we don't get in there. They're not paying us by the hour."
Sam Rubin, the international bicycle dealer who bought John Henry for $25,000 after his career had reached a dead-end with other owners, always saved his best lines for the cameras, and he doesn't fail Koby. In giving McAnally and his predecessor, Lefty Nickerson, a free hand, Rubin says: "I'd say hello to my trainers, then I'd say goodbye, then I'd bring the valise and take home the money."
But there were times when even Rubin wanted his own way. He took Laffit Pincay off the horse, after Pincay had ridden him to several important wins, because he thought the Hall of Fame jockey had snubbed him in the paddock. And as John Henry was turning eight, Rubin insisted on a trip to Tokyo, as sort of a sop to some of his bicycle clients, for the Japan Cup in 1982. He came down with colic and almost died, McAnally said.
I covered John Henry for his final three years, and thought I knew everything there was to know about his story, but the documentary mines new ground. For one thing, his heart was second-biggest only to Secretariat, whose ticker tipped the scales at a thumping 22 pounds; for another, McAnally credits Japanese acupuncturists for reviving the horse when the going turned grim in Tokyo; and the theory of Verna Lehmann, his breeder, is as good as any that John Henry's sour disposition stemmed from his witnessing another horse being put down when he was young and still unraced.
The filmmakers alertly pick up on how Charlie Whittingham turned down John Henry when Rubin wanted to move him from New York to California, and then ironically spent several years trying to beat the salty old gelding with his own stable of stars. "You'll hear from me," Whittingham is quoted as saying after Rubin offered him the horse. But Rubin knew, and he goes on to say: "That's about as nice a turndown as you can get."
The film lingers over footage of some of John Henry's biggest wins, including the Arlington Million, the first million-dollar race in the U.S. "It could go either way," said the Arlington Park race caller, Phil Georgeff, as John Henry and The Bart hit the finish line. Rubin thought it was a dead heat. "The owners (of The Bart) went down (to the winner's circle)," Rubin said. "I wanted to cry for them when they didn't win."
Chris Koby, majoring in film at a California college, was no racegoer, but his grandfather, Robert Walker, infected him with the John Henry bug by sending a copy of Steve Haskin's book about the horse. "The book was my template," said Koby, before returning to the bar in Danville, California, for another night of pouring drinks. Surely out there somewhere is this budding filmmaker's second act.