12/30/2011 2:35PM

Hovdey: Cenicola battling like old partner John Henry

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Benoit & Associates
Team John Henry - from left, assistant trainer Eduardo Inda, trainer Ron McAnally, and exercise rider Lewis Cenicola - attends the unveiling of a John Henry statue in 2009 at Santa Anita.

Thirty years ago, in his heyday as exercise rider for the stars of the Ron McAnally stable, Lewis Cenicola could be heard singing, “You are the sunshine of my life . . .” as he made his way to the track, in a voice that tiptoed a dangerous line between Stevie Wonder and Joe Pesci.

“I think that’s when I fell for him,” said Donna Cenicola, then Donna Hudson, working at the time for T.J. Kelly. “Then I heard him singing the same thing to other exercise girls.”

Cenicola smiled.

“I was singing to the horses,” he said.

And what horses they were. Pay Tribute, Super Moment, Syncopate, Soft Victory, Cruiser, An Act, Queen to Be, Drama Critic – all major stakes winners from the early chapters of McAnally’s Hall of Fame portfolio, and all of them guided through their most important mornings by Cenicola.

Then along came John Henry, that crowd-pleasing gelding with the iron constitution and ornery nature, and Cenicola went from local crooner to national media magnet. He was, after all, the man most often attached to John Henry, and even in those pre-digital days, everyone wanted their picture.

John Henry and Cenicola were workmates for five solid seasons, from 1980 through 1984, after which John retired as a two-time Horse of the Year and racing’s all-time richest runner, living out his days in the Kentucky Horse Park. Cenicola took the end of John Henry’s career as a cue to commence his own as a trainer, which now has come to a reluctant halt through no fault of his own.

Since last October, Cenicola, 66, has been dealing with malignant tumors that attached themselves to his liver and pancreas. One of them eventually spread to the large intestine. Cenicola was hospitalized for a period of time, during which he received a variety of predictions, none of them very pretty.

“I didn’t want to know how long I had to live,” Cenicola said. “I wanted to know what my chances were.”

Over the ensuing weeks Cenicola’s legs became so swollen from blood clots he could not walk. Furthermore, the clots prevented his doctors from going forward with chemotherapy. But by Dec. 26, Santa Anita’s opening day, the swelling in his legs has subsided considerably, allowing him to take a short walk down the block on the summery winter’s day and chat with a few of the many visitors who have been making a pilgrimage to the Cenicolas’s Arcadia home.

“The doctor told me to get some blood work done again next week,” said Cenicola, who was happily out of bed and reclined on a couch, positioned to watch the races on a big-screen TV. “If the blood’s okay, I can start chemotherapy again. When I asked him what my chances were of beating this he said, ‘A thousand to one, but you’ve got a strong will. You may be the one.’ I’ll take those odds.”

It was always a longshot for the son of a drugstore owner to make it in the big leagues of horse racing. Bill Hirsch, the son of Hall of Fame trainer Buddy Hirsch, recalls how the kid from San Jose got started with his father.

“Louie’s aunt and uncle lived next door to us in Arcadia,” Hirsch said. “They owned the El Monte Rabbit Company. Louie came to live with them, but I guess he didn’t like working with rabbits much, so my dad hired him as a hotwalker. He worked his way up to where he was Dad’s number one exercise boy.”

This was significant. Hirsch trained for King Ranch, one of the nation’s leading stables. Cenicola was asked about the horses he handled.

“How about one of the best fillies ever was,” he said. “Gallant Bloom.”

Hard to argue. From the end of her 2-year-old season in 1965 through early 1967, the King Ranch filly had 12 straight wins, including a perfect 8 for 8 in her 1966 championship season.

“A mean bitch, too,” Cenicola said. “Liked to back up and look for somebody to kick. She galloped okay though.”

They usually galloped okay for Cenicola. But it was the long walk to the track aboard John Henry that became their trademark, affording admirers a chance to check out the goods and Cenicola an opportunity to croon another chorus or two.

Beneath the cheery Christmas trappings, the Cenicola home is a showplace of John Henry images and memorabilia.

“Why not?” said Donna. “John Henry bought us this house.”

She pulled out a photo, taken at Arlington Park, in which John Henry is looking one way, Cenicola another.

“I don’t think they’re in much of a hurry to get anywhere,” she said with a laugh.

Didn’t matter. John Henry won two Arlington Millions anyway.

Cenicola had enough success and faithful enough clients to keep his public stable going for 25 years, getting lucky with stakes winners like Interactive, Airistar, and Uncaged Fury, winner of the 1994 Cal Cup Sprint. Cenicola also was the only trainer able to win a race for my late father, who didn’t exactly come calling with King Ranch quality. Right there, Cenicola belongs in some kind of Hall of Fame.

The Cenicolas are not kidding themselves, though. They know the road ahead is bound to be rough. But if nothing else, Cenicola has a pretty good role model when it comes to sticking around. John Henry was down for the count on several occasions in his 32 years on this earth, including those terrifying hours in Tokyo, in November of 1982, when the champ tied up so severely that Cenicola, his traveling companion, was ready for the worst. Then he got better.

“John Henry came back from the dead at least five times in his life,” Cenicola said. “I’m planning on doing him one better.”