John Henry – The Arthur Daly of Professional Athletics.
By Angela Wilson and David Griffin
John Henry was once referred to as the Arthur Daly of professional athletics. An affectionate reference to the 80s English TV show “Minder” and the entrepreneurial, charismatic main character.
76 year old Henry can be found at just about all Victorian Gift meetings carrying the bookies bag. His easy going nature belies the fact he is quick of mind. When it comes to the mathematics of a bet and quick calculations about a runner’s chance, he’s your man.
A Melbourne western suburbs native, JH as he was known, played footy with Kingsville, ran athletics and boxed a bit. His dad worked on the docks and he hung out with former boxing hard man Ray Styles. It was Styles who got a young John Henry into boxing.
Over the years he worked as a bouncer and he has a certain calm confidence about him that comes from someone who can handle himself. The tattoos dotted around his body speak volumes, they weren’t part of a trend as they are these days, but more a message.
He once raced the great ‘Ravelo’ in the 1975 Stawell Gift. He struck the eventual winner in his semi-final that year. Whilst disappointed it’s since become a good yarn.
His best run as an athlete was a very close second in the Lavington Gift in 1973. At the time Lavington was challenging Stawell as the richest race in Australia, and there are plenty that thought he was unlucky not to get the decision that day. He won the 100 metres at the same meeting and he eventually retired from pro athletics in 1976.
Rumour has it that he set for the 1968 Stawell Gift but came up against Ian Miller in his heat. Miller won the Stawell Gift that year in 11.6 seconds, the equal fastest time ever recorded at Stawell.
For JH pro running was life, with the added benefit of it being a form of income. He admits he has done a lot better at coaching than he did at running himself, and he has built up a reputation as an astute coach.
“When I started there was not a lot of choices of summer sports etc. Then with the friendships and the training ethics and feeling of wellbeing it became a way of life. Also it was a sport that was different to the norm and you had the chance to travel all over Australia to compete if you wanted”, Henry said.
Having trained the likes of the Hargreaves brothers, Matt, Shaun and Chris, Laura Jane Hilditch, Matt Callard, Joel Bee and Luke Stevens, Henry has racked up plenty of wins.
In fact from 2006 through to 2017, the JH stable of stars, won 195 races, for a grand total of $320,000 in prizemoney. With an average of 17 wins a season, in anyone’s language, John Henry has been a successful coach.
He could very well be our closest link to past glory days of the sport. Back in the day, money kept the sport alive, it not only fed families but many made good coin out of the caper.
Graeme Goldsworthy, current sprint handicapper, and someone who has been in the sport as long as Henry, provided a great example.
“In 1952 my father trained David Hobbs to win the Bendigo 1000. He won enough money out of the win to buy a dairy farm at Congupna, just out of Shepparton. As his trainer, my father bought his first car out of the winnings and my mother got a washing machine”.
“David Hobbs ended up leaving Congupna and went up to QLD and bought a bigger place and subdivided. He became a very wealthy man out of what he won out of the Bendigo 1000”, said Goldsworthy.
John Henry followed up with an easy to understand analysis on winning the biggest race of the year, the Stawell Gift.
“Realistically if you win Stawell and you get your whack of the betting and you can come out with 50, 60 or 70 grand and you are doing pretty well”, Henry said.
Handy money in anyone’s language but these days for a pro athlete, it’s more about the prestige of winning a race that keeps them going. With only one bookie at any race meeting, the chances of winning big are at long odds.
Away from the Pro running scene, JH was once a professional fighter and stepped between the ropes at the West Melbourne stadium a few times. You don’t fight at what is known as the ‘House of stoush’ without being able to hold your own.
He was more a fighter than a boxer. Fight fans call it infighting and JH was good at it. He also fought in the tents all around the state, and with a wink and a smile, Henry made comment that there are rumours of a few fights outside the ring as well, but they’re just rumours.
1964 Stawell Gift winner Noel Hussey laughs when talking about an incident in the 80s.
“Johnny Henry was a good bloke and he could ‘go’ a bit”, Hussey said.
“We had an unfortunate lad in a pub try to take me on one day, and before I could get warmed up, JH stepped in and sorted the issue. Let’s just say we both went back to our beer but the poor lad seemed to lose interest in his and went home”.
Many don’t know professional athletics without John Henry being involved. Cut from different cloth, he is everything people like about professional athletics.
Supportive of every meeting, loyal to runners, JH keeps alive the essence of a sport with a direct link to history.
There isn’t much he hasn’t seen and he is always up for a chat, except when you have just backed the winner, then you might have trouble getting a word out of him.