By Lee Schoenbart
There's a lot of enormity about the late thoroughbred John Henry. His bronze statue weighs nearly as much as John Henry did in real life, about a half-ton. His legend, too, is enormous.
All of this resurfaced Dec. 26 during a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of Opening Day at Santa Anita when North County sculptor Nina Kaiser's bronze beauty of John Henry was unveiled.
Kaiser, a horse lover since before her days on the circuit as an exercise rider and assistant trainer, was commissioned by Santa Anita the week after John Henry's death in October 2007 at age 32.
"This horse has been off the radar for a good 20 years, and he still has a core group of fans," said Kaiser, who was gratified by the turnout in John Henry's memory. "I was getting e-mails from people. It just surprised me. Whether he has old fans or new fans, I think some of them were people who saw him run, and others who have just fallen in love with the idea of him as 'the people's horse,' 'the horse from the wrong side of the tracks' and a 'fan favorite.' He's like a more modern-day Seabiscuit. I would say they're kind of related in that way, underdogs that people could identify with, working class horses."
John Henry was not born into any sort of champion bloodline, and his owners decided to geld him as a yearling in 1976. A couple of years later, he was sold for a mere $25,000. But by the time John Henry retired in 1985, he was thoroughbred racing's all-time leading money earner at $6.5 million.
He won Eclipse Awards as champion older horse in 1981; champion turf horse 1980, '81, '83 and '84; and thoroughbred racing's highest honor, Horse of the Year, in 1981 and again in 1984 at the age of 9.
John Henry was inducted into the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame in 1990 and ranked No. 23 on BloodHorse Magazine's Top 100 U.S. racehorses of the 20th century.
"Santa Anita was essentially my home base, and they came to me just through word-of-mouth," Kaiser said as she described the John Henry commission. "They approached me back in the early '90s about doing a life-size bust of (jockey) Laffit Pincay, and in 2005, I did a bust of (jockey) Chris McCarron."
John Henry's statue arrived at Santa Anita nearly six weeks before the unveiling and two years after being commissioned. After coming up with the design, it took Kaiser 18 months to create his likeness. The foundry procedure, where a mold is made the piece is cast, took an additional four months. The commission is valued at more that $100,000.
Even though Santa Anita might be "home base," Kaiser, who has lived in North County for six years, had strong ties here for decades.
"I worked on the racetrack forever and ever, and we used to come to Del Mar every summer. I started coming to Del Mar back in the mid-1970s," she said. "So when it came time to retire from the day-to-day at the racetrack, this area was like a second home to me already, and a lot of ex-racetrackers have settled around here."
About the artistic endeavors and the track experience, Kaiser said: "I was always artistic as a child, and yet my love of working hands-on with horses superseded drawing them. I did both for a long time and honestly, my first love is the horses and the horse racing business, but this (sculpting) has worked out so well for me.
"My (sculpting) career started from word-of-mouth in the horse racing business," she said, "and I've been very fortunate because even the world over, it's still a small community. Everybody knows each other."
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