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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


By Marion Altieri — No rants, vitriol or even a single drop of venom in this piece. this is the Alpha Mare waxing philosophically, inspired by that which could only be known as “One Great Life, Lived on His Own Terms.”

Last week, we in horse 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 is out. This turf writer will scoop that-journalist; a new book will be announced, perhaps even a movie. Our sport, all sports, needs 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.

Well, I have nothing new or insightful to add, about his career as a racehorse. Instead, I have a personal experience to relate to you, one that, when followed through, can help us as individual humans hang onto our sense of self.

And, in a culture that insists on the mass homogenization of the individual (even while screaming at us to be original), a secure sense of Self is absolutely essential.

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–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 am 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.

After my meeting, I made a point to hike to the Hall of Champions, to visit John Henry, Cigar and Da Hoss. I gobble up every Thoroughbred they’ve got when I’m there, both visually and emotionally. 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 by 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 such monumental proportions because:

You must understand: YES, John Henry may very-well have been The Meanest Horse on Earth. He tried to bite virtually everyone in his path. No stranger—sporting even a single functioning braincell, would let John Henry approach—never mind, offer up their hands, face and head to such a volatile, unpredictable, 1,000-pound animal.

But I didn’t have time to back up, and yelp, “No!” One second he was wolfing down his sweet Timothy—a second later, he was at his gate, shoving his nose onto my hands, hair and face. He sniffed with great interest, with the same level of “drinking in’ with which he consumed his water.

John Henry was interested in getting to know ME.

Or, was he sizing me up, deciding which part to eat first?

Even as he sniffed my hands, I held in my breath, thinking, “I’m gonna miss those fingers…” but said not-a-word.

When he got to my face, I was terrified: he had the teeth and the rage, even at age 32, to maim me for Life. To rip my face to shreds.

But…as he moved his gigantic right nostril over my own right nostril—putting his huge mouth well within biting range—my fear floated away, inexplicably.

John Henry was sharing breath with me. Like Hindus, who stand closely to exchange breath, and thereby, spirit: that legendary horse, that beast-of-a-beast—wanted to experience my soul, via my very breath of life.

Then, slowly, deliberately and thoughtfully—he moved his face along mine, and planted his right eyeball on my left eyeball. His eye, wide open. My eye, wide open. Both wet, soft orbs touching each other—each, peering into the very essence of the other being.

(I’ve experienced many horses moving their eyes closely to my face, to get a better look. But never, ever in 47 years of equine moments did a horse ever place his or her actual eyeball onto my eyeball, hoping to gaze in and see The Real Me.)

So, perhaps now you understand why this was such an extraordinary moment. For me, but possibly also in the entire history of Thoroughbred horses: that the meanest of ’em all wanted to get to know me. And to do that—he had to get as close to the gateways of my spirit as possible: my breath, and my eye.

I believe that I am singularly blessed.

Right after John Henry backed up and our lovefest ended, his Horse Park friend and groom of eight years brought him fresh, cold water. As she entered his stall, the old man actually put his ears back—extended his neck—and nipped at 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 probably was one of the nastiest equines 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 and a room with a view—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 nausea, in the coming months.

Far more important than racing analogies, I believe, is that John Henry taught us that, as long as we are 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 a cranky 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—then obviously they have exceptionally good taste, and are open to experiencing you in all your self-ness, as Plato would say.

John Henry lived his life on his terms. If we study this magnificent champion’s life in detail, I’m sure we each can find a way to find our own self-ness, and live our lives on our terms. No-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners—living. Drink deeply from that well, and thereby 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.

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6 Responses

  1. From what a gather from my memory bank John Henry Had to be the smartest intimidator or one of the top intelligent,feared horses of ALL time.RIP. Strange how one name brings so many good thoughts ideas,memories. The Equine Mike Tyson [ on his prime] !Thanks !

  2. You’re correct JG, and his reputation for being a bad actor at times is not an exaggeration. But that’s what makes Marion’s take so interesting to me…

    1. The comment that ‘This horse looks around at the public as if he`s acknowledging them” can be compared to the Immense Super Horse , Secretariat. Big hearts,big minds…If only they could talk,whisper….. “Be true to yourself” in an era of copycats,wannabes. never weres and pretenders.It takes guts to look up into the mirror of life and appreciate your reflection,imprint. The banality of crowds,noises and empty pages don`t mean a thing. Follow Your path,intuition and pleasures. Whose life is it ,anyway ? “My Way”,,as three French guys wrote, Paul Anka copied and Frank Sinatra made famous. C`est la vie ! That`s life !

  3. Enjoyed your piece immensely despite your apparent displeasure with rants. What is a rant to one man, is another man’s honest passion. If you believe stronly and honestly, rant on. Was there at the finish line at the Meadowlands the night of his last race. Would not have missed it for the world. Could rant for hours about that performance, along with so many others.

    1. Oh, dear, TTT, your first sentence is tongue-in-cheek, yes? I wrote that intro because the one thing I do a LOT–is rant. (I wrote MANY rants on HRI a decade ago–ask John.) I laughed out loud at the phrase, “your apparent displeasure with rants” because TTT, I’m a ranter. When I’m fired-up, I rant with such logic and writerly grace that–people to whom I say, “Go to Hell”–thank me for the travel advice. (If I may write so, myself. HA!) 😉

  4. Really enjoyed this piece. John Henry was a HUGE part of my life growing up, and still is to this day. My uncle was Sam Rubin and it was truly incredible growing up to watch, hear stories and still to this day continue to hear what an amazing horse he was. RIP John…Always missed never forgotten. RIP to my Uncle Sam and Aunt Dotty as well 🙂

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