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Longtime NYRA Official John Hennegan Dies at 84

Aggressive brain cancer claims life of respected man who played many roles at NYRA.

(L-R) John Hennegan with Hall of Fame rider Chris McCarron and Hall of Fame trainer Mack Miller at Saratoga Race Course

(L-R) John Hennegan with Hall of Fame rider Chris McCarron and Hall of Fame trainer Mack Miller at Saratoga Race Course

Courtesy of John Hennegan

Longtime New York Racing Association official John Hennegan died April 11 after a battle with aggressive glioblastoma—a form of brain cancer. He died nine days shy of his 85th birthday.

Hennegan began his NYRA career in 1965. He worked as a racing official for nearly 40 years, spanning five decades. His positions included patrol judge, assistant clerk of scales, clerk of scales and placing judge during that time.

As a teenager growing up in Baltimore, he served as a ballboy for the National Basketball Association's Baltimore Bullets and operated the clubhouse elevator at Pimlico Race Course. He graduated from Calvert Hall College High School and attended LaSalle College in Philadelphia, where he briefly played basketball.  

His affiliation with horse racing began with his father who served as secretary for the now defunct American Trainers Association in Maryland. Legendary horseman Alfred Vanderbilt helped young John get connected with NYRA to launch his long career as a racing official. Once in New York, he was fortunate to be mentored by the late horseman and television personality Frank Wright.

His roles as a racing official made him witness to countless historic races. He served as a patrol judge for the legendary Ruffian-Foolish Pleasure match race. He also worked in various capacities at all three Triple Crown-clinching Belmont Stakes (G1) of the 1970's. 

As exciting as these moments were, it was everyday racetrack life that he loved best. He cherished his relationships with his wonderful coworkers and friends in his racing universe. 

In addition to horse racing, he loved to travel to beach destinations such as the British and United States Virgin Islands; Ocean City, Md.; Hutchinson Island, Fla.; and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The wonderful people he met in all of these places have become lifelong family friends.

He is survived by his devoted wife Nancy, his daughter Brooke, sons Brad and John, as well as four grandchildren.

No immediate plans have been made for a memorial but something will be held to honor his life in the coming months. In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation to the New York Race Track Chaplaincy in John's name.

Tributes from friends and associates

"I first met John Hennegan in 1977, when I started my career in racing with the National Steeplechase Association. We were based at Belmont Park and had a close relationship with all of the NYRA officials. John was one that was always helpful and willing to guide young professionals that wanted to learn about the game. I was lucky to get to know him and spend valuable time with him, especially when he volunteered to work for the NSA as a steward, and joined us on the road at several of our race meets."

—Bill Gallo, NSA director of racing

"Mr. Hennegan—I would never have dared to call him John—was a welcoming face in the intimidating racing offices at NYRA. My frequent visits there for lowly responsibilities at Fasig-Tipton required many favors. He never hesitated to offer assistance or advice to wet-behind-the-ears juniors like me or titans of the track like Elliott Burch or Woody Stephens. Immaculate in all seasons, never without a tie, Mr. Hennegan was the consummate gentleman. I was surprised to read from his son, my friend John, that he was a (Rolling) Stones fan. I pictured Mozart and Leonard Bernstein, perhaps even Benny Goodman. Mr. Hennegan—an enigma in the rough and tumble life at the racetrack. It was an honor to know him."

—Terence Collier of Fasig-Tipton

"John Hennegan was a hard worker, friend to all horsemen, and a loyal NYRA employee for nearly 40 years. He was everybody's friend, including mine. He will be greatly missed."

—Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr.

"I'm so sorry to learn that my long-time friend from Baltimore has passed. I first met John at Belmont Park in 1980. He was always cordial, respectful, and kind. I thoroughly enjoyed our discussions about Maryland racing and the good old days. May God rest your soul in peace my friend."

—Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron

This press release has been edited for content and style by BloodHorse Staff.