Bruce Johnstone, who transitioned from a successful career as a trainer to management at the New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA), the last 13 years of which he spent as Manager of Racing Operations, died Thursday following a lengthy battle against cancer. He was 76.
At NYRA, Johnstone served as the bridge between management, horsemen and riders, working with everyone from the stewards to jockeys, the gate crew, outriders and anyone else connected to racing. Imposing at 6'4″ and with a deep, baritone voice, Johnstone stood out for his commanding presence at the track – and for his knowledge, wise counsel, experience and diplomacy in times of stress.
“Bruce was a true horseman who used the lessons of a lifetime to make all of us better in so many big and small ways,” said NYRA CEO and President Dave O'Rourke. “He was a man of impeccable integrity who was a beloved member of the Thoroughbred racing community here in New York and around the country. Bruce was universally admired for all the right reasons and we will miss him every day.”
NYRA created Johnstone's position when he joined the organization in 2007. “If I'm talking to a trainer, I know what they're saying,” he said of his duties in a 2018 interview. “I'll know how to address a concern or an issue. I have an office, but that's not where I live.”
Instead, Johnstone could often be found in the paddock, on the edge of the track, the backstretch or the barn area, navigating between groups and attending to any and all issues. Those issues could range from something as basic as a sauna without hot water to pop-up decisions on whether to postpone or cancel racing in poor weather conditions and ensuring the horses are adequately hydrated and sponged down in hot weather.
In 1974, Johnstone went to work at the Phipps Stable with accomplished trainer John Russell and Hall of Famer Angel Penna. Johnstone took out his own training license in 1980. Among his career highlights were wins with Secrettame in Gulfstream Park's Shirley Jones Stakes in 1983 and Buck Aly in Aqueduct's Grade 2 Bay Shore Stakes in 1986. Secrettame, a daughter of Triple Crown winner Secretariat, was owned by Venezuelan owner Jose “Pepe” Sahagun and his Villa Blanca Farms.
While at NYRA, Johnstone also served from 2018 to 2019 as Chairman of the famed Aiken Training Center in Aiken, S.C.
Born and raised in Santa Barbara, CA, Johnstone attended the University of California at Berkeley on an athletic scholarship as a swimmer and a water polo player; and also played rugby. After earning a degree in International Relations and Diplomacy, Johnstone was recruited by the U.S. Coast Guard for the Special Coastal Forces Program, an elite group of college graduates who had been Division 1 athletes.
Johnstone then ran a successful steakhouse, Chuck's of Hawaii, in his native Santa Barbara, a job in which he worked his way into an ownership stake. The restaurant celebrated 50 years in business in 2017 and remains open today.
It was around then that Johnstone had the opportunity to spend time with his biological father, Charles “Sandy” Johnstone, a New York-based veterinarian, and turned to horse racing.
Visiting his father in both New York and Kentucky, Johnstone, in his mid-20s, became smitten with thoroughbreds to the point where made it his career change. “I got the bug with horses,” Johnstone said in the 2018 interview. “It must have been the pedigree. So I packed up my orange VW van and my two dogs and headed to Kentucky.”
In 1972, he joined trainer Victor J. “Lefty” Nickerson at Elmendorf Stable, where he was a part of one of racing's biggest upsets, Big Spruce's victory over Forego in the 1974 Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park.
“I live racing seven days a week,” Johnstone said in 2018. “And when I go to the neighborhood bar to get away from it, I find that people want to talk about what I do – not their jobs, but mine. That's always fun – and it makes me realize how much I enjoy this life.”
Johnstone is survived by his daughter, Kelly Johnstone.
Details on a memorial service will be announced when available.
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