John Henry, The Bart Move to Saratoga

Starting on July 12, the famed statue depicting the thrilling finish of the 1981 Arlington Million will be residing permanently at the National Museum of Racing. Here is the inside story of that historic race and the unforgettable battle to the wire between John Henry and The Bart. ~ Steve Haskin

John Henry, The Bart Move to Saratoga

By Steve Haskin


When Churchill Downs sold Arlington Park it inherited its iconic showpiece, the “Against All Odds” statue depicting the thrilling finish of the inaugural Arlington Million between John Henry and The Bart that overlooked the paddock since 1989.

Churchill, not having any connection to the statue, has donated it to the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga, where it will be unveiled on July 12. Now fans at the famed Spa can look at this striking piece of history constructed by Edwin Bogucki and relive one of the greatest races ever run, which launched the Arlington Million into national prominence and John Henry into legend.

So let us go back to 1981 and how this epic race came about and how close John Henry came to not running. But first we have to set the stage by briefly telling John Henry’s remarkable story and what an unlikely hero he was. He had such an irascible disposition his owners couldn’t wait to get rid of him, selling him for $1,100 and $2,200. But someone was always willing to buy him. One person, Hal “Bubba” Snowden, bought and sold him three times. He was owned by Cajuns, Kentucky hardboots, a female Japanese bloodstock agent, and a Jewish bicycle salesman. His sire stood at a farm near Osseo, Michigan for a stud fee of $900. He began his career at tiny Jefferson Downs and Evangeline Downs in Louisiana, making little impact.

When owner Colleen Madere and trainer Phil Marino began conflicting with each other, Madere contacted Snowden and asked him to take John back and try to sell the horse. John eventually wound up with Sam Rubin, who knew little about racing for an owner. As John’s career took off several years later and he vaulted to superstardom, Marino’s life and career became a living hell. He couldn’t get new clients because everyone knew him as the trainer who couldn’t win with John Henry. With nothing but cheap claimers he descended deeper and deeper into drugs and alcohol, having to support a $2,400-a-week cocaine habit. It reached a point where he couldn’t care if he lived or died. When he finally heard that John Henry had retired, he gave up alcohol and drugs and straightened out his life. Marino never lost his deep affection for John, who he nicknamed Squirrel, despite his constant battles with the horse at the barn. Marino visited John often at the Kentucky Horse Park and the two became good friends, playing games like tug-o-war. He always said his visits with John brought tears to his eyes. The past was forgotten.

So how did this mean-spirited, obscurely bred ragamuffin wind up becoming the first horse to earn $3 million, the first horse to earn $4 million, the first horse to earn $5 million, and the first horse to earn $6 million? How did he wind up winning two Horse of the Year titles, one at the age of 9, and seven Eclipse Awards, being featured on NBC’s Today Show, and being named by People magazine as one of the 25 most intriguing “people” of 1984?

He eventually made his way into the barn of trainer Ron McAnally, who spent his youth in an orphanage following the death of his mother and could relate to John Henry when it came to feeling unwanted. John had spent the first four years of his life being tossed around like unclaimed baggage and responded to the patience and kindness shown him by McAnally. Together the two would make history.

Now we can fast forward to the summer of 1981. At first, John Henry raced in McAnally’s name in California and in V.J. “Lefty” Nickerson’s name when he ran in New York. Following his victory in the Sword Dancer Stakes at Belmont Park under Nickerson’s name he returned to McAnally for good and began training at Del Mar for the new Arlington Million, a mile and a quarter grass race, which would be America’s first million-dollar race.

Ten days before the Million, John Henry went out for a routine gallop, but McAnally noticed he wasn’t moving quite right. He appeared to be fine back at the barn, but shortly after McAnally left at around 10:15, assistant Eduardo Inda discovered the gelding was noticeably off in his left foreleg. He called veterinarian Dr. Jack Robbins to look at him and Robbins could feel sensitivity in the leg. McAnally was summoned to the barn and a set of X-rays were taken. Del Mar had its own clinic and it was much more thorough having X-rays taken there than on a portable machine in the stall. McAnally and Robbins realized that if anyone saw John Henry going in for X-rays 10 days before the Arlington Million it would create quite a stir, so they registered him under a different name. Robbins felt it could have been the beginning of a fractured cannon bone, and as McAnally said, “We wanted to avoid a panic.”

The X-rays came up negative, so Robbins, feeling it might be a ligament, suggested they inject the ligament with cortisone. The following morning John was walking perfectly and the sensitivity was gone. McAnally took it slow with John over the next two days to see how the leg was progressing. He continued to improve with no sign that there ever was an injury.

But with the Million now only a week away, John needed to have a strong work to sharpen him up and see how the leg would stand up under pressure. McAnally worked him on dirt with Bill Shoemaker, who was replacing regular rider Laffit Pincay, aboard. Owner Sam Rubin felt Pincay had snubbed him the last time the two met and told McAnally to get a new rider. John Henry turned in a sensational work and all systems were go.

A few days after being given a clean bill of health John departed for Arlington Park along with stablemate Super Moment. NBC had been contracted to televise the race, which was getting tremendous media coverage, both nationally and internationally. Arlington was a neutral site that would not favor New York or California horses and would provide a lucrative purse to attract 10-furlong horses from Europe. Coming from across the Atlantic were Argument, runner-up in the previous year’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, and the 1980 and ’81 winners of the Prix de Diane (French Oaks) Mrs. Penny and Madam Gay. The latter had also finished second in the ’81 English Oaks.

The leading American contenders in addition to John Henry and the hard-knocking Super Moment were Key to Content, winner of the United Nations Handicap, the local favorite Rossi Gold, winner of three stakes at the Arlington meeting, and Charlie Whittingham’s classy mare Kilijaro, winner of 12 stakes, including Grade and Group 1 victories in the U.S., France, and Ireland. Also coming from California was The Bart, basically a Grade 3 horse who had come to the U.S. after winning the Royal Whip Stakes and Ulster Harp Derby in Ireland.

All McAnally wanted was a firm turf course and a good post position so there would be no excuses. On the day entries were drawn, McAnally and his wife Debbie, who were still in California, had just finished packing their bags and were about to leave for the airport when they received a phone call from a good friend, Bill Kolberg, a publicist for Santa Anita and Del Mar.

“Ron, I’m calling from Chicago,” he said. “I’ve got news for you. It’s pouring rain and John drew post 12.”

“Thanks a lot,” a disgusted McAnally said. It would now be a long flight to Chicago. McAnally had always avoided running John on very bad turf courses, which were rare in California. But there was no avoiding this one, especially with the whole world watching and a possible Horse of the Year title on the line.

When McAnally arrived his worst fears were realized. The course was extremely soft and John was going to have to work out a trip from the far outside post.

Arlington had surrounded the race with a great deal of pageantry, including parties, black-tie affairs, steeplechase races, show jumping in the infield, Lippinzaner stallions, and the playing of the American, English, French, and Irish national anthems.

The McAnallys and the Rubins made their way up to their box and waited. Lefty Nickerson showed up from New York, and even Bubba Snowden came to see his old friend make history. Groom Jose Mercado and exercise rider Lewis Cenicola found a spot by the rail, right on the finish line.

At the start, Shoemaker allowed John to get in stride over the soft going, which was very testing, and then slowly worked his way into position from the far outside. He was able to get him to the inside, settling in eighth position. On the front end, Key to Content was being pressed by 40-1 shot The Bart, trained by John Sullivan and ridden by Eddie Delahoussaye.

As they came by the stands, around the turn, and headed into the backstretch, McAnally knew John was in trouble. He didn’t say anything to the Rubins, but he could tell watching John’s head that there was no rhythm to his stride. When John got into his rhythm his head would move up and down in perfect cadence with his stride. Shoemaker also could tell that John wasn’t handling the course and he decided to just leave him alone, just gently nudging him along.

As the field approached the half-mile pole, a rush came over McAnally. He could see that familiar head bob. John finally was beginning to find his rhythm, as those smooth daisy-cutting strides began to reappear. But as they neared the head of the stretch he still had six lengths to make up on The Bart, who surprisingly had gotten the better of Key to Content and kicked for home with the lead. John was relentless as he came charging down the stretch, with the crowd cheering him on. But The Bart still had a lot left and John had to dig down for everything he had. It was going to be close and John was running out of ground. Both horses gave one final lunge, and although John’s head was coming down at the wire it still was too close to call. The angle of the NBC camera seemed to indicate The Bart had held on.

Delahoussaye thought John had just nipped him, but as they were pulling up, Shoemaker yelled over to him, “I think you beat me.” Rubin felt it was a dead-heat, but then he heard people around him calling The Bart the winner. Cenicola, standing right on the finish line, felt John had gotten his head down in time.

Because it looked as if The Bart had won on the NBC camera angle they posted The Bart as the unofficial winner, much to the dismay of those watching on TV. The Bart’s owner Franklin Groves, and his wife, thought they had won and rushed down to the winner’s circle. Rubin, fearing an uncomfortable situation, decided to remain in his box until it became official.

Finally, the suspense was over, as John Henry’s number went up, much to the shock and embarrassment of NBC. As the McAnallys and the Rubins made their way down to the winner’s circle thy saw The Bart’s owners coming back. “When I saw them crying it took all the guts out of me,” Rubin said. “I could see how badly they felt.”

There also were tears shed for two courageous Thoroughbreds who had just pushed themselves to the limit. John Henry had shown what champions are made of, and the Arlington Million was on its way to becoming one of the world’s most prestigious events. Edwin Bogucki’s dramatic statue was unveiled eight years later, showing John Henry and The Bart fully outstretched reaching for the wire. To commemorate the occasion, the then 14-year-old John Henry and 13-year-old The Bart were paraded in front of the stands in a heartwarming tribute to two gallant horses.

The Bart showed the following year why his performance at Arlington was no fluke, as he scored Grade 1 victories in the Hialeah Turf Cup and Century Handicap.

At the 1981 Eclipse Awards ceremonies John Henry accounted for a remarkable seven awards: Horse of the Year, champion grass horse, champion older horse, leading owner for Sam Rubin, leading trainer for Ron McAnally, leading jockey for Bill Shoemaker, and leading breeder for Golden Chance Farm, who had originally sold John for $1,100.

John Henry was now a true superstar. But it was far from over. Immortality still awaited him. John, despite his ornery disposition and humble beginnings, would go on to become one of the most beloved horses of all time whose incredible success was achieved “against all odds.”

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.



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78 Responses to “John Henry, The Bart Move to Saratoga”

  1. arlingtonfan says:

    Just read that Golden Gate Fields is being permanently closed at the end of this year. I am heartsick!

    • John Goggin says:

      Yep. I read the same. Sad. In fact, this article’s horse spotlight horse, John Henry, set a track record in winning the Golden Gate Handicap years ago. Even the great Citation ran here.
      This follows track closures on the west coast from Aqua Caliente to Fairplex (Pomona), Holly Park (Hollywood), several fair circuit tracks in central and northern California, Portland Meadows, Yakima Meadows, Playfair (Spokane), Longacres and of course Bay Meadows.
      Sad indeed.

  2. Matthew W says:

    I did not realize how many races Funny Cide ran, I thought he had been retired not long after his three year old season…I saw him in the walking ring, at the 2003 Breeders Cup, where older horses Pleasantly Perfect, Madaglia ‘d’ Oro, Congaree dominated…the geldings were my favorites….Ancient Title was the first Thoroughbred I loved, and I also loved “‘Ol Number Ten”, (Forego), and John Henry…and Best Pal…Lava Man…..someone asked me if I could see any Thoroughbred that ever ran, whom would I choose….and I answered Exterminator, “Old Bones”, with his large triangle marking….Exterminator won 50 out of 100 starts, he raced too long or else his record would have been better,

    • Matthew W says:

      That’s something that has not changed, geldings, and their long racing careers….they brought Exterminator back for celebrations, time and again with his best pal Peanuts, the tiny pony….they brought back Silky Sullivan many times….they brought back Chinook Pass often….it’s the geldings that endure, in racing lore….I’d love to go see Lava Man!….Native Diver only lived to be eight—but he was buried at Hollywood Park, then they moved his remains to Del Mar—the geldings endure, and a Mew York bred gelding named Funny Cide won The Derby….and to prove that was no fluke he won The Preakness by from here to across a four lane street..

  3. arlingtonfan says:

    I was sorry to read just now of the passing of Funny Cide at age 23–another terrific gelding. I’m grateful that I got to see him at the Kentucky Horse Park four years ago.

    • Todd Vaughn says:

      In rhe fall of 2002, i was at Delaware Park on the day the Champagne was being run at Belmont. As i was preparing to watch the Champagne on a paddock tv, an older gentleman asked to see my racing form for Belmont. He explained that he had a two year old who would be competing with these horses next year. I later realized that i had been speaking with Barclay Tagg, and his horse was Funny Cide, who at that point had been dominating new york breds. The rest is history. Sorry Funny Cide didn’t have a few more years. He meant a lot to many people.

      • Ms Blacktype says:

        Great story, Todd. Thanks for sharing it.

      • arlingtonfan says:

        “The rest is history,” indeed! Thanks for sharing this.

      • Davids says:

        Todd, if ever there was an ‘omen bet’ that was it. Did you put some money on Funny Cide in the Kentucky Derby?

        That’s the worst part of racing, you tend to outlive your beloved heroes.

        • Todd Vaughn says:

          Unfortunately i did not bet Funny Cide. Can’t remember who i settled on. But Barclay Tagg is among the last of the old time trainers, and it was great to see him get the Belmont and Travers with Tis the Law. He must be in his 90s now, but he and Robin Smullen still have some decent horses.

          • Todd Vaughn says:

            Sorry. He’s just 85.

          • Davids says:

            Bob Baffert is 70 years old now, I remember when he had a baby face. Lol.

          • Jiffy says:

            That is a wonderful story. It was an honor to be able to share your Racing Form with Barclay Tagg, whom I admire a great deal. If I had a horse, he’s the person I would want to train him. I too was saddened by the death of Funny Cide, a favorite of mine. I’m rereading his biography, and his story is delighting me all over again. I always remembered what one of his owners said when he lost the Belmont after winning the Derby and Preakness. When everyone else was devastated, he said, “If anyone had told us two months ago that we would finish third in the Belmont Stakes, we would have thought that was the greatest thing that could ever happen.” Funny Cide and his people will not be forgotten.

  4. Matthew W says:

    Pretty rare, for a Cal-bred winning a Saratoga Stakes…Ancient Title won The Whitney, in 1975 ….Not sure of any others, I think a Cal-bred may have won The Test…but nor certain about that….

  5. Ms Blacktype says:

    Gold Sweep did well to salvage second in the Sanford Stakes today at Saratoga after his stumble at the start. It was the first victory for winner Yo Yo Candy’s trainer, Daniel Velasquez, at the Spa, according to DRF. Call the Cavalry, who was vanned off after finishing fifth, appeared to be fine after cooling out. Whew, and fingers crossed that he’s fine.