NYRA to honor Bruce Johnstone on Whitney Day

July 28, 2021

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – The New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) today announced it will honor the legacy of Bruce Johnstone during Whitney Day on Saturday, August 7 at Saratoga Race Course.

NYRA will honor the late horseman by bestowing the “Bruce Johnstone Best Turned Out Horse Award” to the groom of the horse deemed by NYRA racing officials to be best presented in the paddock ahead of the Grade 1, $500,000 Longines Test. The winning groom will receive a $150 gift card.

Johnstone, who passed at age 76 on February 6, 2020 following a lengthy battle against cancer, transitioned from a successful career as a trainer to management at NYRA, where he spent the last 13 years of his career as Manager of Racing Operations. 

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 President & CEO 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 he is missed.”

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 immediate decisions needing to be made on whether to postpone or cancel racing in poor weather conditions and ensuring the horses were 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 the 1983 Shirley Jones Stakes at Gulfstream Park and Buck Aly in the 1986 Bay Shore Stakes (G2).

Secrettame, a daughter of Triple Crown winner Secretariat, was campaigned by Venezuelan owner Jose “Pepe” Sahagun and his Villa Blanca Farms.

While at NYRA, Johnstone also served from 2018-19 as chairman of the famed Aiken Training Center in Aiken, S.C.

Born and raised in Santa Barbara, Calif., 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.

It was through time spent with his father, Charles “Sandy” Johnstone, a New York-based veterinarian, that he 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 he made it his new career.

“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, Johnstone 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.

NYRA Press Release

Photo: Bruce Johnstone (NYRA/Coglianese)

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