1st COVID-19 coronavirus death in New Jersey was veteran horseman

The first person to die in New Jersey from the new coronavirus disease was a longtime fixture in the harness racing industry, and his death has prompted the closure of a track outside New York City.

John Brennan died Tuesday at Hackensack University Medical Center, about a week after he had reported to his primary care doctor with a fever and cough. Brennan, 69, lived in Little Ferry, a New Jersey suburb just north of the Meadowlands sports complex, about 5 miles west of New York City.

He worked at Yonkers Raceway, a harness racing track that is just 4 miles from the center of one of the largest pockets of the virus in the U.S., in the New York suburb of New Rochelle.

Brennan worked for many years as a harness racing trainer before becoming a field representative for the Standardbred Owners Association of New York, a job in which he represented drivers in disputes with track management.

Officials in Bergen County, New Jersey, didn’t identify Brennan when announcing his death Tuesday. A close friend of Brennan’s confirmed his death to The New York Times.

COVID-19 usually presents only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and the vast majority of people recover. But for older adults and people with other health problems, it can be worse. New Jersey health officials said Brennan had underlying medical conditions, including diabetes and high blood pressure.


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In a statement Tuesday, MGM Resorts International, which owns the track and adjacent casino, said the track would be shut down, and it urged employees to self-quarantine. Brennan was believed to have last visited the track March 2, according to the statement.

“We will continue to coordinate with and follow the guidance of health officials and support them in their response and prevention efforts,” the company said.

Associates of Brennan remembered a larger-than-life figure who hailed from Queens and brought some big-city attitude with him.

“He was just a fun-loving guy who had a great sense of humor,” said John Campbell, the highest-earning driver in harness racing history, who drove horses trained by Brennan at New Jersey’s Meadowlands Racetrack. “As a trainer, he was a good horseman; he really understood the game.”

Brennan’s job as field representative would require him to attend races almost every night, Campbell said.

Retired driver Bill O’Donnell, the head of the Central Ontario Standardbred Association, was friends with Brennan since the late 1970s, when they met at the track in Saratoga, New York. O’Donnell said that he drove Brennan-trained horses through the 1980s and ’90s and that the two men developed a close friendship.

“He was a big, gruff guy, but he had a heart as big as the sky,” O’Donnell said. “In other words, a typical New Yorker.”

Brennan’s neighbors in Little Ferry said they were surprised and alarmed by news of his death.

“It’s a little nerve-wracking,” said Christine Voto, who said Brennan had been sick for about two weeks and “did not look well.”

“Yes, people die from the flu, but this is something altogether different,” she said.


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