John Henry: The Secret of the Ghetto Gelding


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One of the most talented horses in track history, he is undoubtedly one of the most popular and enigmatic characters, too. John Henry has captured the attention of racing enthusiasts and the media at large both here and abroad. An early-morning feature on NBC's Today show, for instance, highlighted the gelding's idiosyncratic trek to the track on race day, while People magazine included him among such notables as Chrysler's Lee Iacocca and ghostbusting comedian Bill Murray when it named him one of its 20 most intriguing people of The magazine's profile of the horse's career noted that "like Ronald Reagan, this geriatric marvel traveled the country from coast to coast [in ] and convincingly proved that the race is not always to the youngest.

George , a German horse magazine, seems to agree with this reasoning in a recent feature. Titled "John Henry: Nationalheld Und Publik-umsmagnet" loosely translated, "national hero and magnet of public attention" , the article talks not so much about the horse's running ability but his racing sense--an intangible and unmeasurable quality that allows him to control a race. As anyone who has worked with him or religiously watched him from the stands will tell you, the little bay horse with the average-looking body and captivating eyes has come a long way during his racing career.

Though he won his first start as a two-year-old on a Louisiana track, he didn't really distinguish himself until late in his four-year-old year, developing from an average sprinter on dirt to the premier distance horse on grass. Now, surrounded by trainer Ron McAnally, assistant trainer Eduardo Inda, exercise rider Lewis Cenicola, groom Jose Mercado, jockey Chris McCarron and veterinarian Jack Robbins, VMD, the horse has mellowed in the six years that the Rubins have owned him from an unruly, some say roguish, youngster, castrated from his temperament as a two-year-old, to a mature racehorse.

Yet, while those who know him best talk of John Henry's sense of self, his disdain for hurry and hard work and his determination to stay in front of the pack, no one has ever been able to truly define the quality or combination of factors that make this superhorse tick.

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Sensitive handling and savvy campaigning obviously enter into the equation for success. But what other attributes account for the gelding's gradual development, dominant position and durability as a racehorse? John Henry had caught our eye, too, and we were determined to discover exactly what makes the Old Man of the racetrack run so consistently and so well.

We knew that sports medicine could provide many of the answers we were after since it defines athletic effort in terms of measurable features and functions that can be assessed to establish racing superiority. Additionally, inside every winner's body there is a mind, a psyche, "heart" to match the heart.


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Desire is an element of winning we don't yet know how to measure in scientific terms, but there must be clues from which to estimate it, or it wouldn't be so universally acknowledged and cherished. After John Henry's impressive victory in the Budweiser-Arlington Million in August , McAnally's response to the always-asked "What allows the horse to keep running and winning against the best as a nine-year-old?

Because we didn't want to discount the possibility of divine intervention, or any other influence or factor in the racehorse's career, we invited the nation's top equine sports scientists and other prominent experts to pool their talents and analyze the superhorse last January at Santa Anita Park. Through their combined efforts, and with the cooperation of all of John Henry's people, the EQUUS panel put the gelding to some of sports science's sophisticated tests and other more avant-garde methods of evaluation in order to discover exactly what makes him a legend in his own time.

We left no stone unturned in the course of this project, examining the gelding's pedigree, along with his feeding, shoeing and training schedules. We listened to his heart, analyzed his blood, played racing films over and over so we could detect subtleties in his gait. We put conformation measurements into a computer and evaluated his bones. We did a hands-on inspection to see if it might reveal any telling clues, then we turned to the secrets of his mind and the special circumstances surrounding his birth to find out as much about this horse as we could.

When the experts put their heads together, they resoundingly concluded that John Henry's success is no fluke.

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This superhorse is a product of several super qualities, most notably his gait, heart and personality. Her sire, Double Jay, is one of the greatest broodmare sires in the history of American breeding, says Rasmussen, the horse's daughters having produced approximately stakes winners. According to trainer McNally, John Henry's great-grandsire Princequillo seems to have had the most influence when it came to passing on familial traits.

He sees John Henry as a larger but almost identical version of that noted sire.


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Since the preeminent racehorse is actually a running machine, his engineering plays a significant part in his success. John Henry's body is full of racing advantages not obvious at first glance. He is small--standing approximately Careful assessment, however, reveals that John Henry has a large frame and is a bit leggy for a horse of his size. Of the measurements Mackay-Smith recorded--elbow to ergot, 27 inches; elbow to withers, 26 inches; and withers to croup, 26 inches--the legs are about one inch longer than you'd expect for a For the most part, however, the gelding has near-perfect proportions, which combine in a subtle harmony free from any exaggeration except for a big shoulder that places his arm well forward, making his neck look short.

When 21 of John Henry's measurements were computer analyzed by Ken Trimble of Computer Horse Breeders Association, the gelding placed with the cream of the crop. Trimble has measured thousands of horses and rates engineering--how the horse is put together--and the balance between power, body weight and stride. The highest engineering rating he has ever given is John Henry achieved If there is a chink in this living legend's conformational armor, however, it's his legs. So back at the knee as a youngster that many buyers turned away, his right carpus still bears the stains of early strain.

His shin bones, too, show some minor differences in density that are probably the result of slightly unequal wear, but for the most part, they are stronger than those of other racehorses. John Chatalas, of Chat Monitors, Inc. The key to this measurement is that the speed of the ultrasound passage is directly related to bone hardness, which normally builds with use and age and declines with injury and overwork.

John Henry's bone density is above average compared to the measurements of 26 two-, three- and four-year-old Thoroughbreds, and the gelding came out considerably ahead of three racehorses his own age who are still in work. Since the horse was moved to California as a late four-year-old, trainer McAnally has always backed off or withdrawn John Henry at the slightest hint of soreness. Suspensory ligaments have been the focus of concern, flaring up twice in the right fore and recently in the left. Veterinarian Jack Robbins remarks, however, that the horse heals faster and more completely than most--no scarring or thickening afterward to mark the strain.

These minor setbacks have limited John Henry's starts to about eight per year. Imagine the record an uninterrupted campaign could have piled up by now. But his ankles are still like new, and that's where most older horses eventually wear out. According to George Pratt, PhD, professor of electrical engineering at MIT, John Henry's ultra-smooth and efficient gait makes remarkable use of the conformational assets he does posses. Pratt estimated the timing of each of the horse's legs on the ground and in the air, and the integration of the legs in a stride.

He identified a "wheel-spoke" efficiency of the extremely long, low strides which approaches the ideal for distances of three-quarters of a mile and more. Fueling the horse's special stride is an amazing cardiovascular system.

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John Henry's low resting pulse of 26 to 28 beats per minute gives a rough estimate of correspondingly large heart size. According to Rantanen, John Henry's left ventricle measurement of approximately 20 centimeters puts him in the upper three percent of the stakes-winning racehorses he's evaluated to date. Though a "heart score"--a comparison of a horse's weight to certain dimensions of an electrocardiogram ECG traced on paper--might have also verified the size of John Henry's heart, Rantanen wasn't able to obtain an ECG reading because the horse wouldn't tolerate the skin clips.

Even without the measurement, however, when you think about the horse's small stature in relation to his large heart, you realize the tremendous pumping capacity he has per pound, ensuring that a sufficient amount of oxygen is being delivered to his working muscles whenever he races. In essence, this allows him to do much of his fast work efficiently and aerobically so that he can cruise by the competition late in the race, and the longer the race the better for him. In addition to his large heart, the horse probably has a large spleen, Mackay-Smith speculates, because his resting red blood cell count was an extremely low Only a good-sized spleen could hold enough red cells in reserve to fuel John Henry's needs in the heat of competition.

A working red blood cell percentage compared to the resting cell percentage would have provided proof positive about the spleen. However, we were unable to conduct this test as well as one for total blood volume per pound, an indicator of endurance, because the horse was out of training when we were there. Closely related to heart size and the efficient delivery of oxygen via the blood, are a horse's muscle characteristics.

Central to speed and endurance in the elite runner, they are genetically determined, and the best Thoroughbred racehorses generally have 75 percent or more fast-twitch oxidative, Type IIA fibers. While Mackay-Smith noticed that John Henry's muscles were the relatively flat sort indicative of fast endurance, it was impossible to conduct a biopsy to exactly determine their fiber content. The way he runs and wins, however, is powerful evidence of correct muscle composition.

One area where John Henry proved that he's just like any other horse was in a hormone analysis. Both his testosterone the male sex hormone and estrogen the female counterpart fell within the normal range, offering no credence to the theory that heightened hormonal output is essential to racing competence. The separate bodice of the dress, was fastened by laces either down the sides, back or front.

Most women who did not have a maid to help them dress, wore bodices laced up the front. The low wide neckline which showed off a pushed up bosom and a necklace, could be filled in more modestly or warmly, with a "chest piece" giving the appearance of a blouse worn underneath. The skirts were tied on to the bodice with laces. Round the waist, they wore belts or chains, with decorative pomanders perfume containers, handy in the public loos or in the mucky streets , small books encased in decorative covers, or watches - a new invention, and a very expensive accessory which came more into use in the s , hanging from them.

Women also carried their keys, a small mirror polished metal then , a knife, and other odds and ends they needed such as flints to start a fire or light a lamp or candles this way, often linked together by chains, linked to a belt. They might carry a bag to hold their purse and all the things they needed with them but more usually they had separate pockets or bags which were tied round the waist often under the outer skirt, which was a safer way to stow your money and your watch. These bags or pockets were accessed through a split in front or at the side of the skirt.

Stockings, looked like long socks and they were kept up by garters tied round the legs above the knees. The stockings were cut and sewn from fabric usually matching the dress. Knitted silk stockings were already known on the continent and became mass produced on knitting machines in England from the s.

All sorts of shoes and boots were needed at court, for indoors and outdoors, for sporting occasions and riding, for dancing and for dressing up in masked performances. There were boots, shoes for different occasions, slippers, buskins a bit like modern uggs they were also for casual wear. And if it was mucky outdoors, as it usually was even in the streets of cities like London they tied clogs called patterns over their shoes to raise them above the mud, rubbish and the excrement from dogs, horses and humans, that covered the streets and courtyards.

In addition the girls needed hats, gloves, coats, riding outfits, and nightgowns. Nightgowns were not just worn in bed but for casual wear indoors.

John Henry Ballentine Scotch Classic 1984

And underneath it all a sort of bra and pants. The soft bras they wore which were tied in place, were called "breast-cloths", or "brassieres". They were worn under the nightgown.

By day they were supplemented by the stiffened and laced up "bodice" which kept the boobs pushed up and in their right place. Another essential were the rolls of soft fabric for making sanitary towels - which had to be washed and reused. Most women used rags. The sanitary padding was tied in place by pants which were tied up at each side, or just by a piece of rag tied round. Of course the fabric would be soaked through.

Women could wear leather bras and pants as they did in Roman times, and probably very much earlier. Leather pants are moisture-proof and were still used until recently in some parts of the world, stuffed with moss, for sanitary protection. If an encounter with Henry VIII or one of his friends left you sore underneath, you could obtain or make a pessary, with soothing herbs in a small mesh bag tied with cord or ribbon which hang down so you could pull it out again.

This was not a tampon to catch a period, although they made those too from rolled up cloth tied with cord. Useful when in a scanty costume at a court performance on the wrong time of the month. Knickers - which looked like shorts but in two parts joined by the ribbon threaded through the waist band - gussets did not get in European knickers until the 19th century were considered a rather indecent new Italian fashion - useful though in case of riding mishaps, or when dancing with the King.

Riding a horse when wearing a collection of full skirts propped up around with a farthingale was a problem. For processions etc. The side saddles at this time only enabled the rider to sit sideways on her horse. She would not be able to do much to control it by herself, and had to be accompanied by a groom.

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At the wedding procession of Katherine and Arthur the English ladies and the Spanish ladies were lined up side by side but the way their saddles fitted meant the Spanish faced one way and the English faced the opposite way. They ended up back to back. Ladies that wanted to join in the deer hunting fully, not just get to the place where the picnic and barbeque would be after the hunt, needed something to give them more freedom to control their horse.

John Henry: The Secret of the Ghetto Gelding John Henry: The Secret of the Ghetto Gelding
John Henry: The Secret of the Ghetto Gelding John Henry: The Secret of the Ghetto Gelding
John Henry: The Secret of the Ghetto Gelding John Henry: The Secret of the Ghetto Gelding
John Henry: The Secret of the Ghetto Gelding John Henry: The Secret of the Ghetto Gelding
John Henry: The Secret of the Ghetto Gelding John Henry: The Secret of the Ghetto Gelding
John Henry: The Secret of the Ghetto Gelding John Henry: The Secret of the Ghetto Gelding
John Henry: The Secret of the Ghetto Gelding John Henry: The Secret of the Ghetto Gelding
John Henry: The Secret of the Ghetto Gelding John Henry: The Secret of the Ghetto Gelding
John Henry: The Secret of the Ghetto Gelding

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