01/09/2012 2:41PM

Lewis Cenicola, jockey, trainer, and John Henry's exercise rider, dies at 66

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.

Lewis Cenicola, who was a jockey and trainer but was best known as the exercise rider for two-time Horse of the Year John Henry, died late Sunday night. He was 66.

Cenicola was found to have pancreatic cancer less than three months ago, and it subsequently spread to his liver. He was under hospice care when he died at his home in Arcadia, Calif., just a few furlongs from Santa Anita. He is survived by his wife, Donna. They had no children. Funeral services are pending.

Jay Hovdey on Lewis Cenicola and his battle with cancer

Cenicola was part of an entourage with John Henry that included Ron McAnally, the Hall of Fame trainer, assistant Eduardo Inda and groom Jose Mercado. They sent out John Henry to Horse of the Year titles in 1981 and again in 1984, when John Henry was age 9. A colorful, entertaining character, Cenicola called John Henry “Papi,” and would frequently sing “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” while en route to the track atop John Henry.

Cenicola first came on the racetrack in 1965, as a hot walker to Hall of Fame trainer Buddy Hirsch. Cenicola got the job because his uncle lived next door to Hirsch. By 1967, Cenicola was riding in races – he scored his first win at Caliente – and he continued to do so until the early 1980s, when he would ride an occasional horse while mainly working as an exercise rider. His main clients were McAnally, and trainers Jay Robbins, Paul Parker, and Noble Threewitt.

Cenicola left the sport briefly in the late 1970s to run an Italian deli in the Los Angeles suburbs. Though he went back to the track, lavish Italian meals were a staple of his home when guests arrived.

In 1986, Cenicola went out on his own as a trainer. His best runners were San Simeon Handicap winner Caballo de Oro; Natural Nine, who won the Silver Screen Handicap; and Uncaged Fury, the California Cup Sprint winner. Cenicola also won with several homebreds, including Cookin Vickie.

“When I won my first race, it was a feeling of accomplishment in that I did it, I brought the horse up and won,” Cenicola said in a 1990 interview. “It wasn’t like when I worked for a trainer and just got on the horse. When I won a race, even with John Henry, the feeling wasn’t the same. I was very happy, but it’s not the same.”