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John Hettinger

John Hettinger
Induction Year: 
Dec. 18, 1933, Pawling, N.Y.
Dec. 6, 2008, Pawling, N.Y.

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The world is not without its share of people who advocate for and protect horses, but for John Hettinger nothing was more central to his role in the racing industry than guaranteeing the enduring comfort and protections these beautiful animals had earned, day in and day out, for their participation on the racetrack.


“I never met a horse I didn’t like,’’ is one of the famous quotes from Hettinger, who died in September 2008 after a long battle with cancer — not that any illness or discomfort on his end slowed his unqualified advocacy. Fellow horse owners, the general public, and Congress all got a healthy dose of what Hettinger had to say, and it was all about saving and protecting the thoroughbreds.


“He is the modern father of thoroughbred aftercare. We owe its existence to John for making this a top-of-consciousness issue,’’ said D. G. Van Clief, the former chief executive officer of the Breeders’ Cup and National Thoroughbred Racing Association. “He said he was going to do something and he put his money where his mouth is and he led a life of significant service to others. He served his country in the Air Force. He was a good friend and he was best known for championing retired racehorses.”


Born Dec. 18, 1933 in Pawling, N.Y., Hettinger graduated from Yale University with a degree in American History. He then ventured to Mexico and Spain, where he developed a beach club and vacation homes on 450 acres near Gibraltar. After 17 years, the sale of this development allowed Hettinger to return to the United States, where he took over his father’s 55-acre Akindale Farm, complete with an 18th century farmhouse.


By the time he was done, Hettinger had expanded the property to more than 800 acres, and Akindale Farm made an impact with stakes-winning horses such as Chase the Dream, Genuine Regret, Jazzing Around, Lady D’Accord, Move It Now, Prospector’s Flag, Up Like Thunder, and Virgo Libra. Stallions were also part of Akindale’s success story, with D’Accord, Personal Flag, Stacked Pack, and Sir Wimborne standing there. A filly named Warfie provided Hettinger’s biggest moment on the track, winning the Grade 1 Long Island Handicap in 1989.


Hettinger’s influence on horse racing soon grew much wider — and stronger. In fact, he is rightfully credited with saving one of the most significant and oldest thoroughbred auction enterprises. In 1991, with the Fasig-Tipton sales company struggling financially, the Hettinger family supplied $3.6 million of the $6 million needed to pay off its debt and reinvigorate operations. Along with his sons, James and William, the Hettinger family was then given a 58 percent share in voting rights. 


“Fasig-Tipton was flat on its back in the 1990s. In my opinion, it was toast. One night after a particularly bloody meeting of the board, John and I were walking down the street in Manhattan and he said he was in a position to make an investment in Fasig-Tipton. The gesture and his contribution were made completely without a profit motive,’’ Van Clief said.


When Fasig-Tipton was sold in 2008 to Synergy Investments Ltd., a Dubai-based company headed by Abdulla Al Habbai, assurances were made by Hettinger and his family “that Fasig-Tipton will be operated in a manner consistent with the principles of integrity, customer service, and industry service which have been so critical to our success since controlling interest was obtained by the Hettinger family in 1991,” board chairman Van Clief, Jr. said at the time, adding: “Those assurances were critical to John and his son, Bill Hettinger, and our entire board of directors, in agreeing to this transaction.”


Hettinger’s true passion was leading the crusade against horse slaughter. He founded Blue Horse Charities, a group aimed at stopping mistreatment and ramping up adoptions for horses when their racing careers were finished. He also opened his Akindale Farm to rescue horses. With more than 130 horses, Akindale Thoroughbred Rescue remains a vital part of Hettinger’s legacy.


“Every time John sold a racehorse there was a stipulation on the bill of sale that if at any time the horse was no longer wanted, John would take it back, no questions asked, and put the horse out to pasture at his own Akindale Farm. He did this because he knew that too many unwanted horses wind up on a cruel and inhumane journey to a slaughterhouse, bound for the dining tables of Europe and Japan,” Nina DiSesa Goodall wrote in tribute of Hettinger on the Akindale website.


Hettinger was not satisfied to be a one-man band when it came to the rescue mission. He penned passionate op-eds and ads against horse slaughter, which he paid to run in the New York Times, Roll Call, and Daily Racing Form. He sent lobbyists to Congress and succeeded in closing the last three horse slaughterhouses in the United States and continued to work on behalf of horse rescue until his final days, making it illegal to ship horses to slaughter in Canada and Mexico.


Hettinger’s name and place in racing inspires passion and reverence. He was also a member of the Board of Trustees of the New York Racing Association and Chairman Emeritus of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation. In 2000, Hettinger received a special Eclipse Award. NYRA also honored him with The John Hettinger Stakes.


Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito, a close associate of Hettinger, was introduced at his Hall of Fame induction by Hettinger — and remains thrilled for that honor.


“1976, I met him through guys that were working for Fasig-Tipton, went to his farm, met his lovely wife, Betty, and his family. We just hit it off, the next thing we know we’re doing business. We won some stakes together. Lady D’Accord, Prospector’s Flag, a lot of good horses,” Zito told Sean Clancy at This Is Horse Racing, adding: “Very good family man, classy guy, good friend, what the business really needs … He had so many hats, all the charitable work, he and Kim (Zito’s wife) got me into rescuing these horses and (preventing) horse slaughter. He was passionate about all that stuff. He was the one who actually gave those farms to thoroughbred retirement. He put his money where his mouth is, believed in his causes. He was so passionate about the horses.”


That’s because John Hettinger never met a horse he did not like — or want to protect.


“John was not afraid to challenge people in the thoroughbred industry, and there was not unanimity on this issue,” Van Clief said. “There were those who felt that once a horse was done racing, it was OK to send it to the slaughterhouse. He raised horse racing’s consciousness to make this issue a priority.”


All because Hettinger was the truest friend to racing’s star athletes.


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