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John Henry was foaled on March 9, 1975 at Golden Chance Farms in Paris, Ky. He was by Old Bob Bowers out of Once Double. 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. After having passed through several owners and trainers, John Henry finally blossomed under the careful tutelage of trainer Ron McAnally, and with his owner, Sam Rubin.

John Henry’s race record included more than $6.5 million in earnings, 39 wins including 30 stakes wins (16 Grade 1 stakes wins) and seven Eclipse Awards, including two Horse of the Year titles. He is the oldest horse to win that title at age 9, and the only one to win it twice in non-consecutive years. He was voted Racehorse of the Decade for the 1980s, and was inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame in 1990.

“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," Chris McCarron, who rode John Henry in 14 of his last races.

In 1985, John Henry was moved to the Kentucky Horse Park. He was beloved by the public, so much so that in April of 1986 Keeneland officials arranged for him to return to the track to be greeted by his fans. In the paddock, John was so unruly that his visit was cut short due to fears that he would injure himself. Santa Anita officials then requested his presence at the 1986 Breeders’ Cup Championships. Rubin agreed on the condition that he could put John into training before the appearance, hoping that would calm him down. He felt that if he was going to train, why not see if he could race again? In May of 1986 John Henry returned to training. In August, John was diagnosed with a torn suspensory ligament and Rubin decided to retire him for good. He made appearances at Breeders’ Cup and the Meadowlands before returning to the Hall of Champions permanently.

Though he was grumpy and known to bite, thousands of visitors came to see him every year. John Nicholson, former executive director of the park, said the horse's value was far more than the sum of his pedigree. Schoolchildren who would visit the park often found inspiration from his story.

He was humanely euthanized on October 8, 2007 due to loss of kidney function from complications resulting from Cushing’s disease. He is buried in front of the Hall of Champions.