1982: John Henry Becomes a Big 'Cap Legend
Forty-four. That number expressed the amount of horses who could be called a champion of the Santa Anita Handicap going into the 1982 season.
While the number was substantial in one respect, at the same time it represented the very few equines who triumphed in California's biggest horse race. Remember, the number of horses who started in the Big 'Cap was a large number, along with the amount of horses who actually made a start at Santa Anita at least once.
Indeed, winning the Big 'Cap was something special.
Since that first iteration in 1935, being part of that list had been reserved for some of the all-time greats, with Seabiscuit, Noor, Ack Ack, Cougar II, Affirmed and Spectactular Bid all earning a space in that timeline.
They were joined by a new name in 1981, and like those just mentioned, he was destined to join them as titans of the track.
After spending the first part of his career taking on claiming and allowance company at tracks in Louisiana, John Henry grew into a graded stakes winner in New York and California as well as becoming a divisional champion in 1980 when he was crowned the year's top grass horse. He would have an even bigger campaign in 1981 as he won eight of ten races to not only repeat as the sport's turf champion, but become Horse of the Year as well.
It was also in March of 1981 when John Henry turned into the forty-forth champion of the Big 'Cap. Facing eleven rivals, the tough gelding moved from the middle of the pack on the clubhouse turn to power through for the lead in the stretch to capture the famed race in 1:59.40, making him one of the few horses at the time to complete it in under two minutes. The star of Ron McAnally's barn had now taken one of the most prestigious races in the land, a fitting conclusion given his status as the most popular horse of the era.
Now at the age of six, and still in the early part of that season, John Henry had much more to accomplish. And that included entering uncharted waters.
After those first forty-four runnings of the Big 'Cap, no horse had emerged with more than one victory in the race. Of course, there was no shame in this, for being a Big 'Cap winner ensured a place in the annals of the turf. But it is not unreasonable to believe that followers of Thoroughbred racing in those days probably wondered if any horse would ever do what dozens did not.
It is also likely that many in attendance at Santa Anita on the afternoon of March 7, 1982 asked themselves if they thought John Henry could be the one to finally tear down that longstanding barrier. Many believed he could, for he earned favorite status for the forty-fifth renewal of Santa Anita's marquee race. Once more, the son of Ole Bob Bowers readied himself for a big event. He had competed on stages of this nature before, and had pursued history only months earlier when he competed (and won) the Arlington Million. He found history in the Midwest. Now it was time to catch it at his home circuit.
With Bill Shoemaker in the irons, John Henry found himself well behind Sir Dancer as the latter took the early lead. He ran unopposed until High Counsel drew level with him going into the far turn. It's The One joined them for the battle as well. Meanwhile, John Henry and Shoemaker launched their bid, dealing with a wide trip at the top of the stretch. But like the folk hero that served as his namesake, John Henry was strong as steel. He would not shy away from traveling a little more ground.
Moving between horses as he readied for the final straight, John Henry soon had just one horse to overhaul: Perrault, a group stakes winner in France and victor of the Grade III Arcadia Handicap nearly a month earlier. Riding Perrault was none other than Laffit Pincay, Jr., who dominated Santa Anita for years like Shoemaker before him. Ironically, Pincay teamed with John Henry to win the Big 'Cap the previous year.
A moment like this could not be made up. John Henry, a rags-to-riches horse like Seabiscuit, only seconds away from standing alone in Big 'Cap lore. Perrault, a talented horse in his own right, looking to serve as the spoiler of an instant classic moment. And Shoemaker and Pincay, the two good friends, the two greatest jockeys of all time, and the two most successful riders in Santa Anita history, battling in the stretch for another victory in a race they both dominated over the years.
And all of this unfolded in front of thousands who cheered the horses and jockeys in the grandstand at Santa Anita.
Perrault and Pincay led at the sixteenth pole, but John Henry and Shoemaker kept going. They kept inching closer with every stride, determined to fight for Big 'Cap glory. Then, at the wire, John Henry seemed to draw level with Perrault. Did he do it? Did he catch the British-bred horse? Did Perrault hold him off? Or did the race end in a dead heat?
Both horses fought bravely, but the photo showed Perrault held off the John Henry by a nose. However, the story did not end there. Video footage gave a head-on view of the stretch run, and what everyone saw was that Perrault came out late in the stretch. He did not maintain a straight path, and that impeded John Henry, who was taken very wide as a result.
Perrault got to the wire first, but he would not be recognized as the forty-fifth horse to win the Big 'Cap. Instead, John Henry again made a date with history, becoming the first horse to win two runnings of the race known decades before as the "Hundred Grander." Though he won it via disqualification, John Henry took his place in Big 'Cap immortality, taking down the barrier to do what none did before him. That renewal of the Big 'Cap turned into one of the biggest races in Santa Anita history, and its status has not diminished in the twenty-first century.
John Henry had come a long way since those days in Louisiana. From allowance and claiming horse to graded stakes winner and Horse of the Year, he was now a Big 'Cap legend. Only three horses have joined him since then: Milwaukee Brew (2002, 2003), Lava Man (2006, 2007) and Game On Dude (2011, 2013, 2014), but he stands as an iconic in Big 'Cap history for what he accomplished.
Really, a major horse, a fan favorite, had to be the first one to take multiple Big 'Caps. And it seems only right that it would be a horse that could captivate and inspire.
John Henry, a larger than life personality, did just that with his fans. And although others have joined him in that rare society of multiple Big 'Cap champions, the fact he is the first member of that club makes that accomplishment as special and magical today as it was on that March day in 1982.