Much more than a horse – Remembering John’s Call

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By Joe Clancy

“I hope to live my life as well as he did his own.”

That gets said about statesmen, military leaders, heroes of one sort or another. But a horse? Not so much.

Unless that horse is John’s Call.

He lived a life of greatness and giving – cramming more into his 19 years than most equines. Most humans. He sold in Kentucky as a yearling, lived as another horse for at least a year, won two hurdle races by disqualification, developed white spots on his chestnut coat, won two Grade I stakes at age 9, pushed the best turf horses in the world to the brink in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, became a lead pony/barn mascot, had a race named in his honor at Saratoga.

Owned by Trillium Stable and trained by Tom Voss, John’s Call reinvented himself more times than John Travolta. The gelding died this winter after injuring his right front leg in a field at Voss’ Atlanta Hall Farm in Maryland. The 19-year-old left a healthy legacy.

“An old, old friend is gone,” said owner Douglas Joyce the day his horse died. “He was a big part of my life and it’s difficult to think that he’s no longer here. He made the most of every opportunity he got – in racing and in retirement. He’ll be missed by a lot of people.”

Racing fan Lorna Lentini e-mailed the comment at the beginning of this article after hearing of John’s Call’s death.

Photographer Barbara Livingston: “Damn, I miss that old horse. He was amazing.”

Barry Watson, who had the good fortune to ride John’s Call in the post parade before the John’s Call Stakes in 2008 and 2009: “He gave you some feeling when you rode him. I’ll always remember those days at Saratoga.”

The list could go on for pages. For whatever reason – talent, achievement, flair, personality, longevity, unique looks (he had all of those) – John’s Call made people notice. He grabbed you, he pulled you into his circle.

The story starts with a telephone conversation. Bloodstock agent John Stuart called his friend/client, Douglas Joyce from the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky yearling sale in October 1992. Joyce spent $4,000 for the son of Lord At War and $3,000 for another chestnut by Sir Wimborne.

The Lord At War became John’s Call. The Sir Wimborne became Stuart’s Affair. Or the other way around. Or both. As young horses, their halters were switched and the accident didn’t get discovered until the tattoo man arrived. The Jockey Club papers didn’t match the horses, so the mistake was undone.

Stuart’s Affair never raced.

John’s Call broke his maiden late in the 1994 turf season at Aqueduct and went into 1995 as a highly regarded 4-year-old maiden hurdler. He confirmed that by placing second in all four starts that spring – at Camden, Middleburg, Tanglewood and Fair Hill. Twice (at Camden and Tanglewood) he was elevated to the win by disqualification for interference. That summer, John’s Call went back to the flat and won two allowance races at Saratoga.

It would be almost three years before he won again. John’s Call missed 2006 with a tendon problem and lost four times (while risked for claiming tags of $75,000 and $60,000) in 1997. He made 10 starts in 1998 – winning five, placing in two stakes and losing his jockey in one final jump start at the Colonial Cup.

The rest is Thoroughbred history. John’s Call became a stakes winner in 1999 and vaulted to the sport’s top with Grade I victories in the Sword Dancer and Turf Classic in 2000.

One of only a handful of 9-year-olds to win a Grade I stakes on the flat, John’s Call went for a championship in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs and settled for a hard-trying third (beaten a half-length) behind European invader Kalanisi and Quiet Resolve. The campaign ended with a trip to the Japan Cup, but John’s Call returned at 10 to win a stakes at Delaware Park before being retired at the end of the season.

His racing career included 40 starts, 16 wins, 11 seconds, three thirds and more than $1.5 million earned.

But he wasn’t finished. John’s Call the racehorse became John’s Call the lead pony, carting Voss to the track at Saratoga – making friends at every stop through the stable area.

Saratoga created the John’s Call Stakes, a 1 5/8-mile turf marathon, in 2004 and hosted the honoree in the paddock, leading the post parade and spiritedly galloping down the stretch to thunderous applause.

“He knows his job, but I think you could very easily turn him on real quick,” Voss once said about the horse (then 13) in retirement. “Good horses will do anything. I just think they are in a class by themselves.”

John’s Call certainly was.

Whenever a Thoroughbred dies, it comes with sadness. But don’t cry too hard for John’s Call. He overcame great odds. He achieved. He thrilled witnesses. He aged gracefully. He lived long and large.

“He was loved his entire life, he was taken care of, he wanted for nothing,” said Joyce. “He had a great racing career and a great retirement, and there are some horses you can’t say that about. As Tom said, ‘He was the king, and when you walked by that paddock you better bow.’ “