When legendary gelding John Henry was finally retired in 1986 after amassing a career record of 83-39-15-9 and earnings of $6,591,860, he was the richest North American-based racehorse of all time.
The then 11-year-old won the inaugural Arlington Million (GIT) in 1981, also known as the “Miracle Million” thanks to the fire that devastated Arlington Park just days before, and took home the trophy in just about every top American turf race — and several dirt races — across the country. The plain brown gelding, who was conditioned for most of his career by Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally, spent his retirement years at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Hall of Champions outside Lexington until his death 10 years ago at age 32.
He was inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame in 1990.
Longtime Kentucky horseman Wes Lanter was lucky enough to spend more quality time with John Henry than most, including during his first stint running the Hall of Champions. He also accompanied him on a mini-farewell tour to The Meadowlands, where he won his last race in 1984. Just like the countless other top-name horses Lanter has worked with over the years, he considers it a privilege to work with the horse most still consider the best gelding of all time.
By Ole Bob Bowers—Once Double b Double Jay
Foaled: March 9, 1975
Owned by: Dotsam Stable
Bred by: Golden Chance Farm Inc. (Kentucky)
Trained by: Ron McAnally, Lefty Nickerson, Robert Donato
Ridden by: Darrel McHargue, Angel Cordero Jr., Laffit Pincay Jr., Bill Shoemaker, Chris McCarron
Career Record: 83-39-15-9, $6,597,947
- Horse of the Year (1981 and 1984)
- Champion Older Male (1981)
- Champion Turf Horse (1980, 1981, 1983, 1984)
- United States Racing Hall of Fame, class of 1990
Notable Victories: 1991 and 1984 Arlington Million, 1981 Jockey Club Gold Cup, multiple other grade 1s on turf and dirt.
Retiring a Legend
In April of 1986, John Henry had spent nearly a year as a resident of the Kentucky Horse Park when he was paraded before a large crowd at Keeneland. Owner Sam Rubin and trainer Ron McAnally were there that day and shortly thereafter the decision was made to bring the brown horse out of retirement.
“Maybe it was McAnally humoring Mr. Rubin or maybe he did believe John Henry could return, but I think now looking back that Mr. McAnally was mostly humoring Mr. Rubin. We don’t know for sure, but that’s what I think.”
At the same time, Lanter’s tenure as a stallion groom at nearby Spendthrift was coming to an end. Due to the farm’s troubled financial situation and the fact that Seattle Slew had left for Three Chimneys and Affirmed was on his way out, Lanter had lost interest and was looking around for his next challenge when the opportunity to work at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Hall of Champions presented itself.
“Who wouldn’t be excited to work in the Hall of Champions?” Lanter remembered. “Forego was there by then and John Henry was coming back. It was a tremendous opportunity for me.”
Lanter, inherently a racing fan, was also a huge fan of John Henry himself. He vividly remembers the son of Ole Bob Bowers winning the inaugural Arlington Million, so the chance to work next to him at the time felt almost unreal.
“I was 17 years old and we were at Lake Cumberland on vacation,” Lanter said, recalling his fondest John Henry racing memory. “And we are all out on the lake, but what do I want to go do? Yep, I wanted to go back to the house and turn on NBC and watch him win the first Arlington Million ever. And that’s exactly what I did. God, him and The Bart coming from nowhere to just get up by a nose? It was an amazing race. So yeah, I was a big fan.”
John Henry was scheduled to make his final trip to his permanent home at the Horse Park when Lanter was summoned to McAnally’s Southern California base. At the time the plan was to parade the gelding before the crowd at the 1986 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, an appearance that was meant to be his last at a racetrack.
“Mr. McAnally called and asked my boss at the Horse Park, Kathy Hopkins, to send someone out to California to get to know the horse a little bit. John Henry liked who he liked and had the people he liked around him, so Mr. McAnally felt someone should probably get to know him before he returned to Kentucky. Talk about an amazing experience. I was 22 and it was my first plane ride and it was certainly my first trip to California, so it was pretty exciting.
“When I got to the barn, Mr. McAnally says to me, ‘After the Breeders’ Cup, we have committed to traveling to The Meadowlands to commemorate the track’s 10th anniversary. I can’t send [assistant Eduardo Inda], so I’m going to send you and [groom] Jose [Mercado]. So, for now, learn about the horse and get to know him.”
Lanter spent the next several days around John Henry and the multitude of top horses in the McAnally barn, but it was the ritual of John Henry’s daily routine that he remembers most.
“I saw the magic points of Ron McAnally,” Lanter recalls. “I got to see John Henry’s ritual. He still went to the track every day, mostly to walk, but occasionally jog with [exercise rider] Louis Cenicola, and it was an honor to be able to take him to the track and watch him. He loved to stand there and look around. It was amazing.”
After the Breeders’ Cup, Lanter and Mercado and John Henry all traveled East to New Jersey and The Meadowlands and John Henry’s actual last appearance at a racetrack.
“The parade at The Meadowlands was supposed to be a great day, but it was a rainy, wet and miserable night,” Lanter remembers. “They made him this blanket with his name on it and the crowd loved him. Mr. McAnally and Mr. Rubin were both there and it was a good night, aside from the weather. And it was great for me because I spent a lot of time with John Henry; I got to walk him every morning and every night and started to figure him out.
“When I was in New Jersey, Bud Delp had a barn there and I met Spectacular Bid’s groom, Mo Hall. He was a character and I remember he said to me, ‘Can you bring John Henry over to our shedrow and have some of that luck rub off, maybe tell [the horses] some things?’ He had a great sense of humor.”
The Hall of Champions
By that November, Lanter had settled John Henry into a new routine at the Hall of Champions, where visitors streamed in to see the richest racehorse of all time. Lanter wasn’t surprised at the sheer amount of people who wanted to “meet” the horse who more than made up for his lack of beauty in ability on the track.
“John Henry was a plain brown horse,” Lanter remembers. “He was about 15’1” and not much else. He was definitely not a royal painting. I mean, you’d look at Affirmed and stand back and think, ‘wow, what a horse.’ But John Henry you’d think, ‘wow, how good a racehorse was he?’ or maybe ‘where’s this horse’s vegetable wagon?’
“Various police forces from around the country regularly came out to the Horse Park to do conformation clinics and John Henry was in a few of them,” Lanter recalls. “They were completely blind and anonymous so they had no idea it was John Henry and he always finished last. The only time he finished last I think. It just showed that racing isn’t always a beauty pageant. He made 6 ½ million dollars and was the richest horse in America.”
Lanter spent 2 ½ years at the Hall of Champions in the late 1980s before new opportunities presented themselves and he was off to tackle new positions within the Kentucky horse industry. But he still remembered to visit his friends at the Horse Park regularly, especially John Henry, as often as he could.
One of his favorite John Henry memories involves the sometimes curmudgeonly gelding giving his caregivers a hard time. Though he wasn’t a mean horse, Lanter says that sometimes he’d stomp on people’s feet harder than he should have for entertainment purposes and that mostly he really just liked to push buttons. As long as John Henry got what he wanted, which included his regular lengthy strolls around the Kentucky Horse Park grounds and some private time after his shows at the Hall of Champions, he was easy to work with. But once in a while he tested his people, which provided some great comic relief in hindsight.
“One year I took my son Noah to the Horse Park’s Halloween show at the Parade of Breeds,” Lanter remembers. “And after I said, ‘Let’s go see John Henry.’ So we walked up to the Hall of Champions and nobody was in the barn, we didn’t think, when I heard a voice saying, ‘No, John. No.’ Over and over. So I walk up to John Henry’s stall and he has a volunteer crouched down behind the feed tub in a corner. I knew he wouldn’t have hurt her and was just messing with her, but she didn’t know that. I said, ‘you don’t know me, but I took care of him and was wondering if it would be alright if I went and got a shank.” All she could say was, ‘yes, yes.’ It worked out ok, but I think John Henry was very proud of himself.”
A Life Well-Lived, A Horseman Revered
The last time Lanter saw John Henry was the day before he died.
“It was a brutally hot summer that lasted into fall,” Lanter remembered. “And they told me he had a hard time and they were struggling with keeping him from getting dehydrated. Sometimes the only choice is the right choice. He lived 32 years and had a great life. I went in and said goodbye and that was it. He always acknowledged that he knew me, but he certainly knew Mr. McAnally, that’s for sure.”
Though John Henry remains a steady memory in Lanter’s mind, he’s often surprised that when he thinks of John Henry his mind invariably ends up on McAnally. Maybe it’s the respect of a Hall of Fame career or perhaps it’s an acknowledgement of what a tremendous horseman he is, Lanter said he remembers McAnally visiting “John John” at the Hall of Champions, but also visiting all the residents there.
Rambling Willie was a Harness Racing Hall of Famer and multiple champion pacer who was also a resident of the Hall of Champions. Harness racing purses have never been high, but back when Rambling Willie was racing in the mid-1970s he earned more than $2 million the hard way, a feat not lost on McAnally.
“Mr. McAnally always brought someone with him to visit John Henry,” Lanter remembered. “And without fail, he always took whoever was with him to see Rambling Willie. He’d say, ‘This is Rambling Willie and he started 305 times. Can you imagine, 305 races?” Mr. McAnally is a tremendous horseman and he knew great horses. Not a surprise he was John Henry’s trainer.”
Lexington, Kentucky, native Wes Lanter has spent most of his life surrounded by some of the best thoroughbreds of the last generation. The veteran horseman served as both stallion groom and/or stallion manager at the most successful and popular breeding farms in the Bluegrass, including Spendthrift Farm, Three Chimneys and Overbrook Farm, in addition to a pair of separate stints at the Kentucky Horse Park. Over his nearly 30-plus-year career, the 52-year-old has worked with three Triple Crown winners, both thoroughbred and Standardbred, five additional Kentucky Derby winners and multiple champions and Hall of Famers.
A walking encyclopedia of most things thoroughbred racing, Lanter is sharing his favorite stories about the horses whose lives he considers himself to be privileged to have been a part of throughout his career. Since leaving his position as Equine Section Supervisor at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Hall of Champions in 2015, Lanter has been working on compiling stories about his horses and deciding where his next life chapter will come from. Lanter also is the proud father of 20-year-old Noah, a standout baseball pitcher and outfielder at Ridgewater College in Willmar, Minnesota.