John Wayne was considered by many of his peers to be the “dean” of racing regulators in North America. He worked at 28 different racetracks over 15 years as an investigator with the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau (TRPB), spent nearly a decade in management at Atlantic City Race Course in New Jersey and the last 21 years as executive director of the Delaware Thoroughbred Racing Commission.
He was a board member of the Association of Racing Commissioners International (which in 2003 honored him with the Len Foote Award) and the former chairman and a driving force with the Organization of Racing Investigators (ORI), which held its annual conference earlier this week in Albuquerque, N.M.
The fraternity of horse racing regulators and others who had come to know, love and respect John Wayne are in shock and mourning this week after learning of his sudden passing on Wednesday, hours after the ORI conference was wrapped up.
Wayne and a couple of associates decided to drive north to Santa Fe from Albuquerque for some sightseeing. They stopped at a national monument near the highway between the two cities and got out of their car. A big man who had survived kidney cancer in recent years, Wayne was stricken with an apparent cardiac event in the 7,000-plus-foot elevation. His friends attempted to revive him, paramedics arrived on the scene, and calls were made to bring in a helicopter to transport Wayne to the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque. Sadly, he was gone at the age of 65.
Born in Manhasset, N.Y., on March 30, 1954, Wayne graduated in 1976 from Dowling College in Oakdale, N.Y., with a degree in business administration. He grew up around racing, learning the game from his stepfather, Clifford McCartney, who worked for the New York Racing Association for 50 years. Wayne worked part-time for NYRA from 1970-76 before being hired full time by the TRPB.
He was a believer that “boots on the ground” were an essential component to racing integrity and led and participated in countless investigations during his time with TRPB and the Delaware commission. He also assisted as a member of “big event” security teams at Breeders' Cup. His stories about some of those investigations and the racetrack characters involved – though the subject matter was serious – were entertaining and often hilarious. He had a great laugh, along with a knack for remembering the smallest details – the names, dates and places.
The most important part of his job, he has said, was ensuring the public's confidence in the integrity of the sport. “If we lose this,” he once told a reporter, “we have failed our customers and the honest horsemen that represent the majority of our participants.”
In short, John Wayne took his job seriously.
“He had impeccable ethics,” said Bill Fasy, the president of Delaware Park. “No gray areas; everything was black and white. He treated everybody the same way and was always professional. He loved to joke, but was extremely confidential when he had to be. We had a great relationship. John had carte blanche to do whatever he had to do to get his job done.”
Duncan Patterson, current chairman of the Delaware Thoroughbred Racing Commission and a commissioner there since 1988, hired Wayne in 1998.
“He had so much experience at Atlantic City and the TRPB,” Patterson said. “He had valuable resources and looked at all aspects of a situation and had the ability to uncover things most of us wouldn't be aware of.”
Patterson mentioned Wayne's battle with cancer, which led to a kidney being removed a couple of years ago. He also said Wayne's mother died just two weeks ago and that his wife, Deirdre, has health challenges of her own.
“He was just a great guy,” Patterson said. “He had that wonderful little smile, a small nose and a twinkle in his eye.”
Wayne was scheduled to host a continuing education course for the Racing Officials Accreditation Program (ROAP) at Delaware Park on March 30-31. Patterson said a decision has been made to go forward with the program on those dates.
I'm sure that's what Wayne would have wanted.
On a personal note, I've dealt with dozens of racing regulators – both at the commission and staff level – over the last 30-plus years. None were more honest and professional than John Wayne. He never avoided taking a call from a reporter and would always say what he could and tell you when he could say more. He went by the book, period, and I wish there were more like him in our game.
In addition to his wife, Deirdre (Seymour), John Wayne is survived by a daughter, Daphne Walters (Thomas), stepsister Tara Wellbrock (Richard); stepchildren Bryant Amper, Gemma Seymour, and Anita Amper; grandchild Phoenix Walters; stepgrandchildren Marcus Prats, Tatiana Prats, Madeleine Amper, and Esther Seiferheld-Amper; nieces Hannah and Grace Wellbrock and nephew Lucas Wellbrock; cousins Frank Laurita (Ellen) and Christopher Laurita (Kristina); other extended family members, and a host of friends.
He was preceded in death by his father John Wayne, his stepfather Clifford McCartney, and his mother Edna Frances (Laurita) (Wanye) McCartney (Fran).
A viewing will be held on Friday, March 6, from 10-12 a.m., ET at the George H. Wimberg Funeral Home, 1707 New Rd., Linwood, N.J., with a service beginning at 12 noon. Burial to follow at the Laurel Memorial Park Cemetery in Egg Harbor Township, N.J.
Memorial contributions may be given to the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (Delaware Chapter) or the Jockey's Health and Welfare Fund ATTN: Robert Colton, Delaware Park, 777 Delaware Park Blvd., Wilmington, DE 19804
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