Bobby Zen

Editors’ Note: Longtime NYRA Racing official died April 11 at the age of 84. His family prepared the following obituary, which we are sharing. 

It is with great sadness that we share the news of the passing of our father John Hennegan  after a brave battle with aggressive glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer. He died nine days shy of his 85th birthday.

Our dad began his NYRA career in 1965. Our parents were married in the shadow of Belmont Park at Our Lady of Victory Parish in Floral Park, N.Y. that same year. He worked as a NYRA 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, MD, he served as a ballboy for the NBA’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 of the 1970’s.

As exciting as these moments were, it was everyday racetrack life that he loved best and enjoyed sharing with us. He eagerly introduced us to all his wonderful coworkers and friends in his racing universe. Dr. Tang. Willie Bananas. Earl the shoeshine guy. These were the folks we looked forward to seeing at “the office” and our exposure at an early age to this eclectic world helped shape our paths in life.

John Hennegan, Dick Van Patten and Merv Griffin in the Belmont Park jockeys’ room | Hennegan family photo

In addition to horse racing, our father loved to travel–especially to beach destinations in order to work on his signature tan. For him and our mother, the British and US Virgin Islands were particular favorites. Ocean City, MD, Hutchinson Island, FL and the Outer Banks of North Carolina were also beaches they enjoyed in their retirement. The wonderful people they met in all of these places have become lifelong family friends.

He loved the Baltimore Colts, Johnny Unitas, the Baltimore Orioles and Brooks Robinson.

He loved watching his daughter Brooke’s high school soccer and lacrosse teams win the New York State Championships in the same year.

He loved watching his son Brad play college lacrosse at Roanoke College and play for a national championship.

He loved watching all UVA sports and visiting his son John in Charlottesville during his time in college.

He loved Otis Redding, Bob Seger and the Rolling Stones

He loved August in Saratoga, crabcakes and relaxing in the sun.

He loved his four grandchildren Brooklyn, Marin, Elsie and Gus. And they loved their “Ranger”  – his nickname since college.

And most of all, he loved his widow Nancy – his devoted wife of 58 years.

We want to thank our father for introducing us to the wonderful world of thoroughbred horse racing. What a gift you gave us Ranger – one we can never repay. We are better people for it. We will miss you terribly.


Brooke, Brad and John

“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, Director of Racing, National Steeplechase Association

“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 .”

–Angel Cordero Jr.

“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 “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, Fasig-Tipton

“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.”

–Chris McCarron

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.

The post John Hennegan, Longtime NYRA Official, Passes Away at 84 appeared first on TDN | Thoroughbred Daily News | Horse Racing News, Results and Video | Thoroughbred Breeding and Auctions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Got questions? Please complete the form below and we’ll get back to you asap.

Join Bobby's Newsletter

Enter your email to sign up for Bobby’s newsletter get new racing tips right in your inbox.