Bruce Johnstone was, without question, one of the finest persons I ever met in the Thoroughbred world. At the beginning of 1977, he was 34, I was 30. It was my first year at Fasig-Tipton, then headquartered at the back gate of Belmont Park. A few years on, Bruce opened a public stable at Belmont, under the kindly eye of Horatio Luro, who remained his mentor and friend until Horatio passed away in 1991.
Bruce trained there for the colorful Dr. Jose (Pepe) Sahagun and his Villa Blanca Farm, taking the string to Aiken in the winter and giving his horses the idyllic lifestyle of that time, an era which has now mostly passed.
Despite his imposing physique, his uncanny resemblance to Tom Selleck in his role as Magnum P.I., Bruce was the gentlest of giants, always with a soft word to his fillies, a gentle nudge for his colts. The antics of the flighty Secrettame challenged and amused him, but never frustrated him. I never heard him utter a cross word. Even during his long illness, he never complained about the hand life dealt him.
Since 2007, as manager of racing operations for the New York Racing Association, he tolerated the bleakness of Aqueduct’s winter meet, he enjoyed the summer and fall of Belmont and he truly thrived during the weeks of the Saratoga meet in July and August. Each year, on the first evening of my arrival at the Spa, Bruce and I met at the corner of the bar in his favored Sperry’s, where, with an enormous martini, we toasted each other’s good fortune to be back for another year at racing’s “Place to Be.”
He was ailing but smiling when I last saw Bruce at Saratoga in August 2019. He was enjoying one of our social highlights–the elegant cocktail party on the lawn of Peggy Steinman’s Fifth Avenue mansion. We both promised to be back at the Spa in 2020. Sadly, that cannot be. But somehow, Bruce’s friends will find a way to ensure he is never forgotten and a way to mark the passing of one of racing’s finest.