10/19/2017 3:30PM

Goodbye, Pony Boy John



Johnny Cosentino, known to countless older racetrackers as "Pony Boy John," died on Friday, October 6. He was 51.  

Johnny was my friend but, then again, Johnny was everyone's friend.  'He never met a stranger,' as the saying goes, and Johnny lived his entire life that way.

People often glorify people in death but, in Johnny's case, there's no need.  For, you see, Johnny quietly and unassumingly helped countless racetrackers - and, I'm sure, non-racetrackers - over his decades on-track.  

I first met him sometime around 1987, when he'd have been 19. He was unbelievably engaging and friendly, a growing 'rock star' pony boy by then, early in his long run of accompanying topnotch (and some less than topnotch) horses in the mornings and afternoons.  His smile lit up the world, wherever he went, he had a spectacular sense of humor and could often be found laughing and joking. And then there was his kindness.

Above:  The earliest frame I can find of Johnny, with Dash of Hope and Jeff Fell, at Saratoga in 1983.  Johnny was 17.

Above:  John Cosentino leads Easy Goer and Pat Day, 1989 Wood Memorial, Aqueduct

For me, it began very early on with Johnny.  When he learned I loved Easy Goer, a horse he ponied to post several times, he gave me the race-day track jackets he'd been given.   I still have the one from the Wood Memorial, and still wear it proudly.  I've always thought of Johnny when I'd put it on but, now, it is a most cherished possession.

Over the years, his kindness continued - small things, and sometimes less small things, with no request for payback. In fact, the only time he ever asked me to take his photo it was because the pony he was aboard, his beloved pinto Breeze, was retiring.  Johnny sat so proudly on him as I snapped the frame, the Saratoga grandstand as backdrop.

The last kindnesses Johnny extended toward me - again, without my asking - came this January.  He was working for Sallee Horse Vans and felt I'd like to keep up with shipping information for California Chrome and Arrogate.  Of course I did, but I'm too shy to ask someone to go out of their way to help.  Johnny texted me regularly with updates, just knowing it would help me.  It did.  

Johnny worked with Shaman Ghost that January there in Florida, and I was so happy to get a photo of them in the Daily Racing Form.  Despite working with countless grand horses over the years, Johnny was excited to see himself in print, thanking me more than once.

Above:  Shaman Ghost and Johnny Cosentino, January 2017, Gulfstream Park

It was only after Johnny's death that I learned with certainty that, with all that he'd done for me, he'd extended himself for others as well - people he knew well and those he didn't.

People have been posting Johnny stories on Facebook.  There are simple things Johnny did to help folks, like mucking stalls when someone was short-handed but refusing pay, saying he needed the exercise.  Or putting red tape on a friend's broken tail light, so they could get to the shop without being pulled over.  He helped a farm measure horses, enthusiastically and for no charge, to better understand dimensions needed for an equine CT machine.  When working as a vet assistant, he insisted on doing all the heavy-lifting work for a pregnant coworker.  

Back in his track days, he helped ship horses, using infinite patience with them and not allowing friends to pay.  He still hauled hay around for friends for free.  When he heard someone at a barn recently complain about being hungry - a person he didn't know, who always ate healthy food - he brought them Greek yogurt.  And how about this?  When someone had to hurry down to Florida from NY to keep their job, but they couldn't drive their car down at the time?  Johnny, and I'm not kidding, drove their car to Florida for them.  Just because that was Johnny.

The Johnny-be-good stories go on and on, and on, and on, and on....

After learning of Johnny's death - the autopsy is not completed, but one theory is a blood clot - I spent some 9 straight hours looking for old images of him.  Evening turned to night, then turned to 2 am, 3, 4.  At 4:30, I stopped, and realized that I was somehow trying to bring him back, to pretend he wasn't gone, to show the world that the light that they've lost was immeasurably bright.  

I thought of how talented Johnny was, what a superb and natural horseman, always there for anyone.  It wasn't about him: it was about the horse.  It was about the rest of us.

I thought of how young racetrackers, so many with their bling and selfie ways, wouldn't understand how important Johnny was.  What he gave to our sport.  How little he ever asked in return. I worried they'd see just the outward appearance, a middle-aged man.

I thought of how they might not think 51 is that young an age for a person to die - after all, Johnny had been on the track since the 1980s.  That seems a lifetime ago, even to me.  But the years shot by in a second, those decades slipped by immeasurably quickly.  I know that, before they know it, they'll understand that Johnny was still young.

I thought of how Johnny didn't ask people to help him out and how, despite his immeasurable kindness, there was something there we could never reach.  That night, and countless times since, I've whispered, "Oh, Johnny."

I looked at countless negatives of Johnny, his smiling eyes forever looking my way.  I thought of his voice, the last time I'd seen him. I ached that I hadn't kept in touch.

I thought of the immeasurable pain that his family must be going through, and then realized that Johnny was also part of the racing family, too.

With all that Johnny gave to people and to our sport - part of its fabric for over 30 years, riding, training, shipping, cleaning, soothing, making sure things went smoothly, smiling - his death was not front page news.  Even racing sites didn't notice his passing.  

But Johnny wouldn't have minded.  That's not why he gave us all he could, for all of those years. He was just being Johnny.

A video remembrance of photographs of Johnny, shot over 34 years.  I wish I could do more, my friend:

Johnny's memorial service in New York is this Monday, and a second service will be held in Royal Palm Beach, FL, on November 6.  At his friends' requests, races are also planned to be run in his honor, including the 1st race at Belmont Park this Sunday.