Lewis Cenicola, the popular exercise rider for the legendary John Henry and a California-based trainer since 1982, died Jan. 8 at 66. Cenicola had been under hospice care for liver and pancreatic cancer at his home in Arcadia, which was right around the corner from Santa Anita. Cenicola is survived by his wife, Donna.
Cenicola, described as a colorful character by those who knew him best, won 279 races from 2,673 starters as a trainer including two graded races—Caballo de Oro in the 1988 San Simeon Handicap (gr. III) and Natural Nine in the 1992 Silver Screen Handicap (gr. III)—and before that was a jockey for more than a decade.
But he was best known as the exercise rider for John Henry, helping the Hall of Famer to Horse of the Year titles in 1981 and 1984. Ron McAnally trained John Henry and was among those closest to Cenicola.
“He was a very good horseman and I really liked him,” said the 79-year-old McAnally. “He did some things with John Henry that I don’t think anyone else would have had the patience to do. He’d let him stand and look when he was on the track, and when John got ready to move, he would let him go.
“Cenicola was very instrumental in John Henry’s success, let me put it that way. He and (assistant trainer) Eduardo (Inda) and the groom . . . he was just . . . I can’t tell you enough about him. He was just good. He was with us for a while, then he left to open a delicatessen near San Jose with his brother. Then he came back. That’s when we had John Henry.
“He liked to party at night, but he was always there at 4:30 in the morning. He got on a lot of good horses for us, all the good Elmendorf horses. He was the best.”
Cenicola began his career at the racetrack in 1965 when he became a hotwalker for Hall of Fame trainer Buddy Hirsch. He rode his first race in 1967.
A rosary has been scheduled on Jan. 11 at 7 p.m. PST, at Douglas Zook Chapel of Remembrance Funeral Home, 600 E. Foothill Blvd., in Monrovia. A funeral mass for Cenicola will be held on Jan. 12 at 1 p.m., at Saint Rita of Cascia, 318 N. Baldwin Ave., in Sierra Madre.
A reception will follow the Jan. 12 mass, beginning at 2:30 p.m. in the banquet room at Santa Anita Golf Course, 405 S. Santa Anita Ave., in Arcadia.