LEXINGTON, Ky. Thoroughbred great John Henry, two-time Horse of the Year who earned more than $6.5 million before retiring to the Kentucky Horse Park, was euthanized Monday. He was 32.
Park spokeswoman Lisa Jackson said the Hall of Famer's health had declined over the weekend. He had lost considerable body mass and was in kidney failure.
"The next step would have been so hard on him," she said. "It wouldn't have been comfortable. ... It just wouldn't have been fair to the horse."
He was retired 22 years ago to the park, where he was beloved by the public and, along with stablemate Cigar, one of the park's biggest attractions.
Foaled March 9, 1975, and an average runner early in his career, John Henry was the highest money-earning thoroughbred in history when he retired in 1985.
The gelded son of Old Bob Bowers out of Once Double won four Grade I races and Horse of the Year honors at age 6 and 9 and collected seven Eclipse awards from 1980 through 1984.
To the end, John Henry remained cantankerous, said Cathy Robey, who runs the park's Hall of Champions, where the horse was stabled.
"He has always been nasty, from day one," Robey said. "John has always had a little attitude problem. He's like the little guy with the chip on his shoulder. He has so many people that would never actually touch him or get near him, but they love him."
"What can I say about the legendary John Henry that has not already been said," Chris McCarron, who rode John Henry in 14 of his last races, said in a statement from the park. "John meant the world to my family and me. Everywhere he raced, his presence doubled the size of a normal race track crowd. He did so much for racing, even after he retired, that he will be impossible to replace. He will be sorely missed but forever in our hearts."
John Henry was loved not for a tremendous talent but because he was a fighter who would battle not to lose at any cost.
Although he never won a Triple Crown race, he was successful at the highest levels of competition on the dirt and the turf.
"John Henry was a testament to the fact that a horse's value is far greater than the sum of his pedigree, conformation, sales price and race record," park executive director John Nicholson said in the statement.
In his career, John Henry earned 39 victories, 15 seconds and nine thirds in 83 starts and earned $6,597,947. He was inducted into thoroughbred racing's Hall of Fame in 1990.
Foaled at Golden Chance Farms in Kentucky in 1975, John Henry was called "small," "ugly" and "bad-tempered" as a foal. He was sold at the January mixed sale at Keeneland for $1,100.
He soon became known more for his disposition than his racing ability, often tearing buckets and tubs of the wall of his stall and stomping them flat.
He was sold to Harold Snowden of Lexington for $2,200 in 1977. Snowden chose to geld John Henry with the hope it would calm him and allow him to focus on racing.
He changed hands two more times until native New Yorker Sam Rubin and his wife, Dorothy, bought him for $25,000 sight unseen over the phone. John Henry's new trainer, Bob Donato, thought the horse would fare well on grass, and John Henry won six of 19 starts as a 3-year-old.
As a 4-year-old, John Henry won four of 11 races for trainer Lefty Nickerson. The following year, John Henry was sent to work with trainer Ron McAnally in California and his career blossomed.
McAnally trained John Henry with "carrots, apples and love," the horse park said. He visited during the horse's retirement and had seen him as recently as September, bringing the animal's favorite cookies and carrots, the park said. Lewis Cenicola, John Henry's exercise rider for six years, also visited the horse in September, the park said.
He won six stakes races in a row as a 5-year-old, including four Grade I races the San Luis Rey Stakes, the San Juan Capistrano Invitational, the Hollywood Invitational and the Oak Tree Invitational.
That year also saw him claim his first of seven Eclipse awards as the nation's champion turf horse. He finished the 1980 campaign with eight victories and three seconds in 12 starts.
John Henry's remarkable run continued for the next four years as he won 18 of 30 starts. In 1981, he won eight of 10 starts and was named champion grass horse, champion older horse and horse of the year.
As a 9-year-old, John Henry won four straight stakes races, claimed $2.3 million in earnings and again was named champion grass horse and horse of the year.
He won what proved to be his last race, the Ballantine's Scotch Classic at the Meadowlands on Oct. 13, 1984. John Henry was scheduled to run in the inaugural Breeders' Cup Turf Classic that year, but a strained suspensory ligament kept him on the sidelines.
Rubin planned to race John Henry as a 10-year-old, but changed his mind in July 1985, after the horse injured a leg during training.
"If he'd have broken down on the race track, I couldn't have lived with it," Rubin said at the time.
Tom Levinson, Rubin's stepson, said in the statement that his mother and Rubin "loved sharing John's victories with his adoring fans and we appreciate their devotion even to this sad day. ... We are sure that if Sam Rubin were here today, he and my mother Dorothy would agree that their wish would be for John Henry to be remembered as the mighty, cantankerous champion we all loved."