John Henry: The Steel Driving Racehorse
By Dana Byerly, Hello Race Fans Co-founder

With the release of John Henry: The Steel Driving Racehorse, it seems as though a genre might be emerging: Charming Racehorse Biopic. Similar to the 2008 Lost in the Fog documentary, John Henry portrays a talented rags to riches story, but with a much happier ending. While the story of Lost in the Fog is told by way of his nutty yet likable owner, Harry Aleo, the story of John Henry is told by way of his equally nutty yet likable “super fans” in addition to the many connections he had throughout his extremely long and illustrious career.

John Henry started from zero, like a lot of people in America.
– a super fan

After the adoring super fan set-up that gives context to the power of the John Henry narrative, the film follows the horse’s career as told by his many (colorful!) connections. The viewer is treated to a barrage of well seen footage, numerous memorial quotes and plenty of fun, if not astonishing, facts. For instance, we learn that John Henry had the second largest heart in a horse after Secretariat, one of the longest strides ever measured, claustrophobia, and a deep seated fear of being destroyed (thanks to an animal psychic).

In fact, John Henry was no stranger to psychic intervention, as a spiritual adviser tried to warn his breeders not to get rid of him:

You’ve got one out there with no marks. Don’t get rid of him. He’s going to be a very famous horse.
– a psychic

In the beginning, John Henry passed through many hands, as owners were always advised by vets that “he’ll never race.” Despite taking the vet’s advice, his first owner Jean Calloway, who purchased him for a paltry $11,000, noticed how effortlessly he glided over the grass when he galloped. She now admits they were too green to know what they had but that were relieved to get rid of him, as he was a handful (claustrophobic + fear of death = crabby horse). Hall “Bubba” Snowden was the first to see an opportunity in John Henry because he liked his sire, Old Bob Bowers, another infamous crab. The plan was to break him and turn a profit.

Then came trainer Phil Marino, who was the first to believe John Henry had potential as a racehorse and advised his clients to purchase him. This went well for awhile until John Henry shipped in to Fair Grounds and encountered a losing streak. He ultimately ended up in the hands of his final owner, Sam Rubin, an affable Bronx bike salesman who got into racing on a lark and thought gelding was a color. (“We bought a gelding” “What color is that?”) Rubin enlisted the services of trainer Ron McAnally and together they unleashed one of the most memorable and impressive careers to date.

One of the greatest gifts that John has given us is that he reminds us that you do not have to have the great advantages in life to be a champion in life.
– John Nicholson, Kentucky Horse Park General Manager

Unlike most of his equine contemporaries, John Henry was not born on third base. Some of the best footage is of the super fans expressing their undying love. They liken him to Andrew Carnegie, Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan and Joe Montana, to name a few. To the super fans John Henry was “the people’s horse” who “almost looked like a miniature donkey” and “walked all over the bloodlines.” As a testament of their love, the super fans would come to the Kentucky Horse Park for his annual birthday party. Much of the footage of the film was taken at his 32nd and final birthday.

The many characters and sparing, yet effective narration weave together the astonishing story of our hero. Well told, often funny and frequently touching, John Henry: The Steel Driving Racehorse is a must-see for anyone with even the slightest bit of interest in horse racing and a should-see for anyone who loves to see the “little guy” make good.

John Henry: The Steel Driving Racehorse Trailer

NYRA John Henry Replay Collection

All of John Henry’s races at Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga.

Videos courtesy of NYRA

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  • Great article. I really enjoyed the trailer for the John Henry movie! Thanks for sharing this. :)

  • Thanks! And the movie is just as good as the trailer… I love that there are so many excellent independent filmmakers doing racing projects. Fingers crossed that there are more to come!

  • This is why so many of us get in the game claiming horses. Maybe, just maybe we’ll get the next John Henry that folks overlooked and carry us all on his back on his way to immortality!

  • I can see that. Lava Man too. In fact, Steve at Castle Village has a horse right now in a claiming partnership that I feel has a shot at stepping up a bit (Bishop of NOLA). I’m bummed I don’t have the cash to get in!

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