Few of us are ever close to “great” persons. The family of Winston Churchill comes to mind; the sisters of Mother Teresa’s convent; the inner circle of John F. Kennedy. Our casual and usually inappropriate overuse of the adjective “great” may even diminish the person we are trying to praise.
Some of us are lucky to be close with wonderful persons, people of achievement, of warmth, kindness, charity, and charm. I count myself blessed that I rubbed shoulders with a truly wonderful man, John Albert Hettinger, who passed away Sept. 6 in his 74th year.
When first introduced to him in early 1977, I had recently joined Fasig-Tipton and was working for John Finney and Larry Ensor from the company’s Elmont, N.Y., offices next door to Belmont Park. John Hettinger, then in his early 40s and brimming with energy and ideas, had already developed Akindale Farm, in downstate New York, into one of the finest and prettiest Thoroughbred farms in the world.
He was not the first Thoroughbred breeder in New York by a longshot, but he raised the bar there and became a catalyst for most of the positive changes in the racing and breeding program for New York-breds.
I visited Akindale almost weekly on business. After John had patiently explained the merits of his stallions—Sir Wimborne was then the Northern Dancer of the Empire State—and had analyzed the qualities of his yearling crop, our meetings usually ended with a discussion of outdoor sports and our mutual interests in fishing and hunting.
A pleasing aspect in John’s life was what he sought in the personality of his very small circle of close friends. If a person did not display passion, he or she didn’t make it in.
I recall his heated exchanges with Chilean horseman Roberto Lira, then managing the nearby Tilly Foster Farm, who would take a contrarian’s position on every issue. John’s education and travels made him fluent in Spanish, so they would noisily discuss subjects from bull-fighting to the writings of Cervantes over their regular lunches or dinners.
He was very close to the agile-minded advertising mogul Bill Free and to the bohemian Wall Street mogul Oakley Thorne. At one time all three had homes close together in both Saratoga and Key West, where they would scheme over brandies late into the night, planning their next venture or adventure.
John saw and adored the qualities and personality of Nick Zito, trainer of most, if not all, of John’s major stakes winners. Though the patrician Hettinger and the Brooklyn streetwise Zito shared nothing in pedigree, they were unquestionably, in John’s mind, social equals.
Zito was passionate about his horses, passionate about success and life, and John saw him personified from a novel by Damon Runyon, one of his favorite authors. Nick will have taken this loss very hard.
But John Hettinger’s love was first and foremost his family. John and his beautiful wife, Betty, raised two sons, Bill and Jimmy, in a home and in an environment that was pure Norman Rockwell.
Akindale Farm allowed John to pursue his passions of breeding and racing in New York. The well-worn, pine-paneled study at Akindale was a sporting person’s nirvana, replete with racing trophies, mounted fish and birds, and always scented by the smoke of a wood fire or the rosewood pipe that was never far from John’s hand or mouth. He retired there each evening for one pre-dinner martini, with his beloved gun dogs at his feet, to reflect on a full day, which always began, sun, rain, or snow, with a horseback inspection of Akindale’s sylvan acres.
As a debilitating and protracted illness reduced his mobility, so many of the activities he adored—riding, working his dogs, fly-fishing the flats around Key West, even playing his flamenco guitar—were curtailed. However, his mind and energy were never sapped, and he devoted all his remaining time and considerable resources to the welfare of retired racehorses.
A meaningful slice of his personal wealth was used to bring to a close the distasteful horse slaughter trade in the United States. Although the changes in federal legislation were largely to his credit, John, to the day he died, was never satisfied and felt the issue was still a work in progress. For him, this was never about the life and death of a horse, but how we treated any animal that had been a servant of its master. Dignity and respect were demanded for a horse until it drew its last breath.
John Hettinger, in the minds of his friends, left this world in just that way.
Terence Collier is director of marketing for Fasig-Tipton.