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DVD Review

coverJohn Henry: The Steel Driving Racehorse
Directed by Cameron Duddy and Christian Koby
Open Sky Entertainment, May 2010, 82 minutes widescreen

John Henry is one of the world's most popular racehorses of all time. His classic rags to riches story, a modern answer to Seabiscuit, starts with his purchase by one of his first owners for a measly $1100 but ends with him being a champion and the all-time leading money winning race horse. He accomplished this back in the days where the only million-dollar horse race was run at Arlington, and the Breeders' Cup was still in the planning stages. Much has been written about this small, plain brown, bad tempered horse from lowly beginnings, but interest was renewed when he finally succumbed to the infirmities of old age, at the age of 32 on October 8, 2007. Directors Chris Koby and Cameron Duddy put together this informative and entertaining tribute to the great gelding John Henry, combining archive footage and interviews to tell the story about the horse and the people around him.

The viewer will see many of his exciting stretch runs, including the memorable 1981 Arlington Million where he defeated The Bart by a head-bob. After that win on the turf he won the Jockey Club Gold Cup on the Belmont dirt, then run at 1 1/2 miles, leading to an Eclipse Awards sweep. Not only was he unanimously voted Horse of the Year, he or his connections won every other award they were nominated for: he was also champion older horse and champion turf horse, while Dotsam Stable (Sam and Dorothy Rubin) was outstanding owner, Ron McAnally won outstanding trainer, and Bill Shoemaker was outstanding jockey, the only time the Hall of Famer won the Eclipse. At the age of 9, he won the Arlington Million again to earn him his second Horse of the Year title, closing out his career at the Meadowlands in the Ballantine Scotch Classic. Contemporary racing fans will see many parallels to current superstar Zenyatta, in that both excited the crowds with thrilling come-from-behind finishes and narrow margins of victory.

The writers included extensive interview clips with the people who were with him most, such as his breeder, owners, trainers, and jockeys, and later, his caretakers at the Kentucky Horse Park. Phil Marino, who first trained John Henry in Louisiana, talked about how losing the horse all but ruined his career, making him the laughingstock of the racing community, and leading him to drug abuse and alcoholism. It was only when John Henry was retired from racing, did Marino quit those addictions "cold turkey". Along with the horsepeople directly involved in his career, they also interviewed some of John Henry's "superfans", and even a horse psychic who claimed to be able to communicate directly with him.

To end the film, Duddy and Koby included footage from John Henry's memorial service at the Kentucky Horse Park, including the eulogy read by Horse Park executive director John Nicholson. The hundreds who came out to pay their respects, including some who flew across the country to attend, showed just how he touched the lives of so many people with his courage on the track and as racing's elder statesman at the Hall of Champions after he retired.

This DVD would make a perfect addition to the personal libraries of both longtime and new racing fans, who will appreciate the greatness of John Henry, a horse truly without equal. Duddy and Koby's work will ensure that John Henry will never be forgotten.

How Kentucky Became Southern has a list price of $19.95 and can be purchased from or direct from the makers at

Rating:     5/5

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