Farewell Friends - John Henry and Tony Ryan

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Among the myriad of adages that aficionados of the Thoroughbred game have devised over the years in an attempt to explain our complex and often perverse sport, one of the most enduring is: “It’s not the size of the horse that’s important; it’s the size of the heart in the horse.”

We lost two prime examples of that precept the first week of October, when John Henry was euthanized on October 8 due to the infirmities of age, and Tony Ryan died October 3 after a courageous battle with pancreatic cancer that he fought for more than 18 months.

They led remarkably similar lives, these two undersized champions, each of them utilizing an excess of intelligence, determination and sheer grit—the basic elements of what we call heart in a horse—to rise from very humble beginnings and become a legend in his own time.

 The story of John Henry is well known to most readers of Trainer. Small, underbred and badly conformed, he was a horse nobody wanted, having been sold for $1,100 as a weanling and, $2,200 as a yearling before being claimed for $25,000 as a three-year-old. 

From there on the rest was history. In a time when horses are racing less and less, he raced through the age of nine, was Horse of the Year twice and retired as the richest Thoroughbred in history with earnings of just under $6.6-million. In 1985, he was retired to the Hall of Champions at the newly-formed Kentucky Horse Park, where he reigned for 22 years as “the people’s horse,” the major attraction among countless champions of all breeds who have been shown at the park over the years.

More than 500 people attended his memorial service on October 19, the truly extraordinary thing being that the majority of them had never seen him race—they had come to adore him as the shaggy, irascible old war horse he was, not the sleek, beautiful Thoroughbred so often on display at the Horse Park. Also incredible to me were the distances people traveled to honor him. The last time I saw him was in April this year when I took a couple from France to meet him while they were in Kentucky on their honeymoon, and when word got out that he was to be euthanized, people flew to Kentucky from as far away as California to pay their final respects. Once again, they were ordinary people, not those who had been associated with him in his illustrious racing career.

I am told a similar crowd was on hand October 14 when the family of Tony Ryan held a memorial service in Ireland to honor the Irish legend who had died within the previous two weeks at 71.

I had first encountered Tony one night early in the fall of 2001 when I answered the phone and a deep mellifluous voice said, “Mr. Kirkpatrick, this is Tony Ryan and I have been told by several people that you’re the only honest real estate agent in the state of Kentucky.”    

“Well, I’m not so sure about that,” I replied with uncharacteristic modesty, “but I do take a great deal of pride in the number of my clients who wind up as long, fast friends, which may say a little something about my character.”

And, although he died too young and too soon in our relationship, I take great pride in the belief that I was a good friend of a great man.

When I looked him up on the day after our initial conversation, I found that Tony Ryan was a genuine Irish legend. Forced to drop out of school at 18 when his father, a railroad engineer, had died from a heart attack, he had gone to work for Aer Lingus, the Irish national airline, for 20 years before founding a highly-successful aircraft leasing company, Guinness Peat Aviation in 1975. In 1985, he formed Ryanair, which is now one of the most successful airlines in the world. 

In the process, he educated himself beautifully and became a self-made billionaire who was ranked earlier this year by the Sunday Times as one of Ireland’s ten richest men. Unlike many very rich, self-made men, though, he had many interests outside his primary business, including the arts, viticulture, philanthropy, Thoroughbred racing and breeding, and, in particular, restoration of historic properties, which is why he purchased the historic but somewhat run down Castleton Farm in October of 2001 and began the extensive renovation that it has turned it into the showplace it is today, including a replica of 11thCentury Cashel Tower in Tipperary, which he took great delight in my describing as his having produced the largest erection in the history of Central Kentucky.

I think we dodged a bullet, Tony and I, when he got Castleton Lyons under contract and in several conversations he began hinting broadly that he would like for me to become a part of running the operation. I sensed then that it wouldn’t work and declined, saying, “Tony, I’d much rather be your friend than to work for you.” 

As I learned later from numerous sources, he was very difficult to work for—a perfectionist with a fierce temper—but, in his defense, I think that he made no demands on his employees that he did not make on himself. But preternaturalambition and inspiration do not come often to mere mortals, and I, like many others, don’t believe I would have been able to keep up the pace that he set for himself and those around him.

Maybe Tony said it best of all in his choice of a quote from Bishop Richard Cumberland for his epitaph: 

“It is better to wear out than to rust away.”