Last week, we in racing lost one of our most revered and beloved warriors: the venerable, brilliant, beautiful, irascible, irresistible John Henry.
Volumes have been written about the old man, and volumes more will be penned before this month’s out. This-Turf-Writer will scoop That-Journalist; a new book will be announced—perhaps even a movie. Our sport—all sports—need genuine heroes, so I suppose that the anticipated glut of John Henry Stuff is OK. I’d just like to think that the expenditure of ink and paper; bytes and bits will be because the writer, producer or publisher actually loved the Champion—and not because there’s gold in them thar dead bones.
On the outside, this is a simple story about a woman who, for a few minutes, breathed the same air as a Hero, from his own nostril. If greatness or Geist can be conveyed thus (and Genesis 1, and every other Creation myth indicates that it is)—well, my career as a racing communicator is about to leap out of the gate, for I breathed the same air as John Henry, from his very own nose.
On the deeper level of the tale, there’s a capital-T Truth in here, about ourselves and our place in the Universe. Sound lofty? It’s not that I’m such a great thinker; it’s that every encounter with a horse, especially a Thoroughbred, can lead to such insights, if we allow ourselves to be led.
You see, something amazing happened to me recently. It took five days for my spirit to process it, but now I’ve got the message. Of course I’m sad because I didn’t realize at the time that it was the last time I’d be able to see John Henry on this side of the heavenly plane. On the other hand, I’m profoundly grateful that I experienced him in all his glorious self-ness (as Plato would say)--just four days before he died.
And that remarkable encounter led me to the reason for this week’s column. Sans further ado, let’s go: the Thursday before John’s demise, I had occasion to be at the Kentucky Horse Park. Of course, after my meeting, I made a point to hike to the Hall of Champions, to visit John Henry, Cigar and Da Hoss. The Horse Park is a little light on Things Thoroughbred, so I visually and emotionally gobble up every one they’ve got when I’m there. And certainly these great Champions are truly representative of The Best of Racing.
So my pilgrimage took me to the Hall, and to John Henry’s stall, first-thing.
The guy was in his house, voraciously eating some beautiful sweet timothy. A monstrous pile of it lined the entire right side of his stall; he could have grazed lazily, but instead he threw himself into the task. He barely looked at me: he had work to do, that of eating every last bit of that hay. He drank his water with the same determination, plunging his face into the bucket and drinking deeply.
It occurred to me that this was just how he’d lived his life, too: drinking deeply, he left no award un-won, no divot unturned. John’s passion for his food and drink that day was representative of the spirited manner in which he embraced his life. I was more than “pleasantly surprised” at his physical hunger and thirst. But more than that, I am now touched by the symbolism of that moment. The fact that it was one of his last-ever meals, and that he consumed it with such lust, truly rings as Jungian symbolism at its most profound: the archetypal warrior horse, consuming all in his path on his way to the gate for his last out.
After he dined, he actually came over to the gate, and sniffed my hands, my hair, my face. He let me pet his nose. We stood nostril-to-nostril, then eyeball-to-eyeball, and just experienced each other. I am blessed beyond measure, to have spent such quiet, tender time with a Hero of classical proportions.
Right after our lovefest, his Horse Park friend brought him fresh, cold water. As she entered his stall, the old man actually put his ears back, prepping to bite her! I laughed and said, “Hey, don’t you bite her!” She shrugged, grinned and said, “Heeeeeee’s John…”
Two minutes after he loved me up, and four days before he would pass through the golden portal into Eternity, John Henry was showing no sign that his spirit was diminished. His body may have been failing, but the stuff that made him who he was hadn’t budged one iota since the day he was born.
I love John Henry. Everyone loves John Henry. There’s a gaping hole in the world, now that he’s no longer standing on it. And the thing is—he was probably one of the nastiest Thoroughbreds ever to grace this Earth. This is not news to anyone: just the facts, folks. John Henry was one mean horse. He probably entered Heaven kicking and screaming, and demanding that he be assigned a personal groom, ASAP.
You see, the thing is that John Henry was, and is, beloved by so many people BECAUSE of who he was, not IN SPITE OF. His nastiness was part of the package: love me, love my ‘tude. If you were on-board for his resounding wins and Eclipse Awards—you had to buy the entire tour. John Henry: Champion, Record-Breaker, Mean Horse.
Even in death, John Henry teaches us something of tremendous value. Yes, of course, all the horse-racing platitudes like, “Run your race,” “Don’t look back,” “Hit the wire first,” etc. will be over-used, ad nauseum, in the coming months.
Far more important than racing analogies, I believe, is that John Henry taught us that, as long as we’re true to ourselves, to being that whom God made us to be—we’ll be just fine. It does happen that, when you’re extraordinary at something—people are more willing to put up with your “stuff.” John Henry was, indeed, an extraordinary racehorse.
But his orneriness was part of his charm. So, regardless of whether he won $6 million or not, he would have been beloved by his audience. He wasn’t just an ornery old man: he’d been an ornery foal, I’m sure. He was true to himself and his personality all the way to the end of his life. People loved him because of his insistence on being himself—not in spite of it.
We should all take a page from John Henry’s book, and stick to our guns. If someone doesn’t like you just ‘cause you’re you, well—you don’t need them. If people do have the good sense and insight to adore you because you’re a feisty, ornery, cantankerous horse of a different color—that surely shows that they have exceptionally good taste, and are open to experiencing you in all your self-ness.
John Henry lived his life on his terms. If we study this magnificent Champion’s life in detail, I’m sure we can each find a way to live our lives on our terms. No-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners—living. Drink deeply from that well, and pay homage to the horse who, even in his death, can teach us a thing or two about loving ourselves just as we are.
Don’t Rest in Peace, John Henry: that’s not your style. Run the heavenly oval with all your guts, and bite the other guy if he won’t concede. We wouldn’t have it any other way.