1980-1982: John Henry's Three at Oak Tree
By the fall of 1980, John Henry was an expert on the Santa Anita turf course. The gelding already owned a fistful of stakes victories contested over the Arcadia grass, and he was well on his way to becoming racing's latest rags-to-riches superstar.
While John Henry is well known for the impressive body of work he produced during the early 1980s, one race in Southern California really stands out in his career. Back then, it was called the Oak Tree Invitational, and it entailed traveling a mile and a half around the Santa Anita green. John Henry had no trouble navigating long distances, as many might remember from his victories in the 1980 San Juan Capistrano and Hollywood Invitational Handicap, among others.
But the Oak Tree Invitational should be regarded in a different category because no horse has ever dominated it the way this larger-than-life equine did.
It all began at the 1980 Oak Tree meet. Aboard John Henry was Laffit Pincay, Jr, and the two let Bold Tropic control the pace for most of the way while staying within a few lengths of him. For a few moments, it looked as if Bold Tropic would roll to an easy victory after shaking free from everyone in the far turn, but John Henry turned on the afterburners late. He got going in the stretch and made a beautiful move to the inside to catch Bold Tropic and power past him for another Grade I triumph. He won the Oak Tree Invitational with a time of 2:23 2/5, which equaled the mark set by Czar Alexander in the very first iteration of the race back in 1969. It also assured John Henry the 1980 Eclipse Award for Champion Male Turf Horse after a season which saw him finish in the top three in every start.
Back for another shot in the Oak Tree Invitational in 1981, John Henry was now a Santa Anita Handicap champion as well as the winner of the first Arlington Million. As dominant as ever over the course of the season, John Henry had only lost once as a six-year-old, the blemish coming in the Hollywood Gold Cup. No such fate awaited him in this return engagement to Santa Anita, however.
After settling in third place early, John Henry found himself with the lead with more than a lap to go. He stayed in that position while his Arlington Million rival, The Bart, followed him around Santa Anita. John Henry never let The Bart get the better of him, but he soon dealt with a challenge from Spence Bay, who made a bold move on the outside before the final stretch run. Everyone watched as Spence Bay and John Henry fought side by side, both of them filled with grit and determination. Spence Bay eked out a small advantage, but John Henry summoned all of his power to put his head back in front in the final yards. With little separating him from the fence or Spence Bay, the grand gelding proved too tough in his second Oak Tree Invitational, equaling his time from the year before while equaling Cougar II's record of two wins in the marathon contest. It was his last victory of the year, and though he lost the Hollywood Turf Cup a few weeks later, John Henry cleaned up at the Eclipse Awards, repeating as Champion Male Turf Horse while also being elected Champion Older Male and Horse of the Year after a dazzling campaign.
When the 1982 Oak Tree Invitational rolled around, John Henry was coming off a fourth in the Carelton F. Burke Handicap. He had only raced two other times that year, with the only win coming in the Santa Anita Handicap following the disqualification of Perrault (which made John Henry the first horse to win the Big 'Cap twice). But John Henry was getting more distance to work with than he had in the Carleton Burke, and he was a master going twelve furlongs. Was another Oak Tree Invitational in his future?
Piloting the reigning Horse of the Year was Bill Shoemaker, who had teamed with John Henry to take the 1981 renewal. Initially, they ran in midpack before moving closer in the backstretch. Only Craelius was ahead in the second turn, and he held on to the lead for most of the stretch. But as Bold Tropic and Spence Bay had learned before him, John Henry was just too strong. He motored on by in the last furlong to become a three-time winner of the Oak Tree Invitational as his fans cheered the gelding home after a time of 2:24.00.
The 1982 season happened to be a year of records for John Henry. Now seven years old, he ranked as the only two-time winner of the Big 'Cap and the lone three-time champion of the Oak Tree Invitational. He pioneered two very exclusive clubs during those Santa Anita meets as well. Only three horses have followed him as a multiple Big 'Cap titlist, but no one has yet managed to equal him in the race he owned for three consecutive autumns.
Over time, the Oak Tree Invitational has undergone a series of name changes. You know it today as the John Henry Turf Championship, named in honor of the race's ultimate champion. It has been run at ten furlongs for years, but John Henry's trio of wins are still among the fastest in the race's history going a mile and a half. There simply has been no horse more prolific in this specific race than the son of Ole Bob Bowers.
Individually, each of John Henry's Oak Tree Invitationals are impressive performances. But collectively, they symbolize his toughness and his durability. First, John Henry proved time and time again that he could put up a fight, as evidenced in his last two Oak Tree Invitational wins. Second, he won those races at five, six and seven years of age, respectively. He had already raced dozens of times before he first tried the Oak Tree Invitational, but John Henry was no ordinary horse. He was immensely strong, just like the folk hero he was named after.
The days of the race being called the Oak Tree Invitational are gone, but nothing else would suffice other than having John Henry as part of its title. He earned that right, and it now stands as a tribute to his longevity and unparalleled record in what has long been a staple of the Southern California racing calendar.