It is the classic story of talent and pluck overcoming a bad environment and a misspent youth. John Henry’s unruly father, Ole Bob Bowers, had a modest racing career, then became a stallion, but was too mean and inept to make a success of that. The son inherited his nasty temper: By age 2 he was biting and kicking, and was given a volleyball in hopes he would smash that and not his stall. He broke one man’s arm by slamming him against a wall. Then bad John Henry was gelded and his disposition improved dramatically. He began to run, like Ole Bob, but much faster. He is now 7 and has already earned a record $3 million (more than twice the winnings of the vaunted Secretariat). Last month John Henry became the first candidate ever to win every vote cast for Horse of the Year.
The man responsible for John Henry’s redemption is Sam Rubin, 67, who grew up poor but happy in the Bronx, bet fruitlessly at the track and got rich as a salesman (mostly of bicycles). Three years ago Sam made a decision. “Dottie,” he announced to his wife, “I’m going to take out $150,000 and blow it on a couple of horses, $25,000-$50,000 a horse and the rest for expenses.” The first acquisition of Dotsam Stable, as the Rubins call themselves, was John Henry. He cost only $25,000—the horse was secondhand stuff, a 3-year-old who hadn’t shown impressive speed. Sam immediately put John Henry to work in a claiming race at Aqueduct. He came in first and paid $26.60. Since then John Henry has won 25 times. He has done so carrying 130 pounds, on dirt, on grass and in mud, and has twice tied the world record for a mile and a half. He earned his West Coast trainer, Ron McAnally, the Trainer of the Year title and helped make Willie Shoemaker, who rides him, Jockey of the Year. Sam and Dottie Rubin from the Bronx were named Owners of the Year. Tired from his coast-to-coast appearances, John Henry came in fourth his last time out in 1981, but Sam reports, “He was so used to winning he almost killed three of us trying to get into the winner’s circle. He was biting, gnawing, kicking. I told him, ‘You’re stupid, you lost!’ ”
Like John Henry, his owner lacks a blue-blooded background. “I’ve been a real degenerate horseplayer for 45 years,” Sam admits. “The biggest problem a horseplayer can ever have is to win his first bet. As a kid I worked in the post office on the night shift and at 3 a.m. we’d go to this cafeteria and look at the racing page. So I, with my big mouth, I said, ‘Oh, that’s easy,’ and I picked a real long shot. So don’t you think that horse won and I took home $82? It was my downfall.”
Sam quit school at 17 to drive a laundry horse-and-wagon. “We’d meet other laundry wagons and race those old plugs around the block at full speed,” he remembers. “They’d come back half dead. I was on the ASPCA Most Wanted list for two years. But after four years I elevated myself. I got married and bought a hand laundry.” He moved on to selling marionettes made by a friend’s wife, switched to toys and bikes and soon prospered. “I traveled the United States,” he says, “but only cities with racetracks. My wife never said a word as long as I didn’t borrow. She knew my illness.” In 1952 he started importing Korean bikes. “This year,” he says, “I may just do $20 million.”
Sam’s first wife died six years ago, and a year later he married Dottie, whose late husband was his late wife’s cousin. They have just bought a condo in West Palm Beach, Fla. But Sam still feels like a boy from the Bronx. “These dummies follow me around the track because I own John Henry, and they think I know the answer to every race,” he says. “Well, as a bettor I just had 14 straight losers. Tips are nonsense anyway. If all the trainers who gave tips would have won, they’d be wealthy men.”
Win or lose on the next 14 races, Sam regards himself as blessed. “Whatever the two of us do is the right thing,” he marvels. “Business is terrific. We buy a horse and it turns out to be John Henry. I think somewhere up there, Dottie’s husband and my wife are pulling strings like the marionettes I used to sell.”