Keeneland’s Ted Bassett: My Life
By James E. “Ted” Bassett III
and Bill Mooney
University Press of Kentucky
It was an honor to be invited to write this foreword as it is about a man who, for as long as I have known him, has been something of a hero.
I first met Ted Bassett at an early Breeders’ Cup meeting, and we have been friends ever since. I was fortunate, a few years ago, to experience my first Kentucky Derby in the company of Lucy and Ted Bassett and a few of their oldest friends. It was on that occasion that I became aware of Ted’s breadth of acquaintanceship, for wherever we went at Churchill Downs, he was greeted with huge enthusiasm by a myriad of people from every corner of the racing industry. They were all, everyone, just as delighted to see him as he was to see them.
Considering that one of Ted’s most endearing characteristics is his innate modesty, the very existence of this book is something of a miracle. We, the readers, are the beneficiaries of this great, good fortune, as this is a book that will give enormous pleasure to many, many people, as well as insights into a wide range of national and international events over the past seventy-five years. There is much of Ted’s life that I was unaware of, and I am fascinated by every chapter in the Ted Bassett story.
And Ted has had a fascinating and unusual life – he has been successful in just about every area to which he has turned his hand and his considerable charm. In this book, we share his journeys from his early days at Kent School, thence to his beloved Yale, and on to his enlistment in the U. S. Marine Corps and his combat experience in World War II. The Marine Corps experience has played a seminal role in Ted’s life, and in his later years, he has been the recipient of the Corps’ coveted Semper Fidelis Award and the USMC Superior Public Service Award.
Following the war, Ted was a newsprint salesman based on the East Coast. He returned to Kentucky in the mid-1950s and was later appointed director of the Kentucky State Police, serving with distinction during a critical period in the state’s history that was disrupted by labor strife and divisive racial tensions.
It was then on to Keeneland in 1968, a move that became a springboard for him as Ted went on to serve the Thoroughbred industry for nearly 40 years. For it was Ted’s Keeneland experience that provided him the opportunity to take on a broad range of responsibilities, such as president of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, the Breeders’ Cup, Equibase, and the World Series Racing Championship. Ted’s efforts have earned him the Eclipse Award of Merit, the Thoroughbred Club of America Honor Guest Award, the John H. Galbreath Award, and a host of other prestigious recognitions, including three honorary doctoral degrees.
Moreover, Ted has traveled to the four corners of the globe advancing the merits of Thoroughbred racing and breeding and earning the sobriquet “International Ambassador of Racing.”
Throughout this book, Ted Bassett’s uncanny ability to charm and persuade is frequently masked by his reticence and leads the reader to underestimate the pivotal and key roles he has played within the Thoroughbred industry. But do not be fooled. His is truly a remarkable story.
The Duke of Devonshire KVCO, CBE
Royal Race Meet at Ascot is traditionally held during the latter portion of June each year. There is also another race meet at Ascot in late July, with six races each day, three or four of which are stakes events. The one that I’ve attended with fair frequency in recent years is the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes, which is also part of the World Series Racing Championship, a group of major international stakes that also includes such events as the Dubai World Cup, the Arlington Million in Chicago, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamps near Paris, the Cox Plate in Australia, the Breeders’ Cup Turf and Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Japan Cup in Tokyo and the Hong Kong Cup.
As the chairman of the board of the World Series Racing Championship, I’d go to Ascot each year to present the WSRC trophy to the owner of the horse who won the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes. You don’t need to wear a top hat and morning coat when attending this race, but there does remain a very strict protocol regarding the award of trophies. It’s not like it is at United States racetracks, at Keeneland or Churchill Downs or Belmont or Saratoga, where a mob of people rush into the winner’s circle as though they are trying to establish a niche in the “Guinness Book of World Records,” with everyone pushing and jumping and yelling. At Ascot, there is a specific routine and everything is always very carefully orchestrated and organized.
A canopied platform is set up in the paddock at Royal Ascot. The Queen is there as is Robert Oppenheimer, who is chairman of the board of De Beers Diamonds, which sponsors the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes. Once the race is run, a designated attaché for the Queen indicates for the winning owner to come forth. He comes up to the platform and the Queen presents the stakes trophy to him. Then, the victorious trainer comes up and the same procedure takes place. After that, the winning jockey comes up, and he is presented with a small replica of the stakes trophy.
All very formal, all very proper, all very dignified.
And, then, they designate me to come up and I present the World Series Racing Championship Trophy to the winning owner. The procedure is that the Queen gently picks up the trophy and slowly forwards it into my hands. Under no circumstances should one appear overly eager to grasp the trophy. In 2003, the winning horse in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes was Alamshar, who was bred and owned by the Aga Khan. Alamshar pulled clear of his rivals to win by 3 ½ lengths, and British turf writers subsequently wrote that his was the most dominating performance in the race in at least a decade.
The Aga Khan, no stranger to winner’s circles in the United Kingdom, well knew that he wasn’t to reach out and grasp the trophy either. So he patiently waited as the Queen, politely, properly moved the trophy from her hands to mine. But, as the exchange took place, neither of us had a good grip on it, and it slipped and fell to the ground, hitting me on the big toe of my right foot. I reached down and, with the Aga Khan’s assistance, picked up the trophy, and I could hear the sigh of amazed dismay, a long, half-horrified “uhhhhhhh!,” that went through the assembled multitudes. Thankfully, Lucy wasn’t there to see this. She would have said, “Ted, what did you think you were doing?” or maybe something a bit more stringent. The Queen, of course, maintained her royal demeanor. She was unfazed. We did the trophy presentation without further mishap.
But, several weeks later, I was back in Kentucky having my annual physical examination. I told Cary Blaydes, who had been my doctor for thirty-odd years, that I had a spot on the big toe of my right foot that I wanted him to look at. In the days after the trophy had landed on it, the toenail had turned a deep black color. Dr. Blaydes asked me, “How long have you had this?” And for some reason, I purposely misinformed him and replied, “Oh, for a couple of weeks.”
Actually, I’d had a bruise on the toe for about six months. I do a lot of walking every night, about two miles, accompanied by my dogs. I initially thought it was just a matter of the shoe being too tight. I’d been soaking the toe in a basin of warm water once or twice a week, and it didn’t hurt. But it had taken on that deep, dark change of color.
Well, Dr. Blaydes looked at the toe and expressed some alarm, and he sent me over to see Dr. John Cronin, an oncologist (a specialist who deals with tumors) at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lexington. Dr. Cronin look at it took and a slice for a biopsy. Several days later he phoned me and said,
“You’ve got a problem and we’re going to have to put you in the hospital. You’ve been diagnosed with a severe melanoma and we’re going to have to amputate the toe.”
I still wonder how in the world I developed a melanoma on my toe. Through the years I’d had severe sunburns on my face, hands, arms, neck, chest, stomach, legs, after spending time at beaches. But I had never had any problems with my feet, with the exception of my experience in the Marine Corps, when I got sunburned so badly on the voyage from Tokyo to Honolulu at the end of the war.
About six months after I had the operation, I met with my old Yale University roommate, Judge Alexander Harvey from Baltimore, and he said to me, “I heard you had a little bit of a problem. What happened?” I told him about the failed juggling act with the trophy at Ascot, and Harvey said, “Oh, come on Bassett. That’s the biggest cock and bull story I ever heard. Don’t tell me the Queen dropped a trophy on your foot and you had to have your big toe cut off.” I still don’t think Harvey believes it happened that way.
I view the Ascot mishap as fortuitous. If it hadn’t happened, I probably would not have mentioned the toe problem to Dr. Blaydes. He wouldn’t have brought it to the attention of Dr. Cronin. And, in the long run, I might not of only ended up losing the toe but something more injurious. I was in the hospital for a week, and after coming home was on a walker for two weeks, on crutches for two more weeks and had to use a cane for an additional three weeks.
That fall the filly Lucy had bred, Adoration, was a Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner at Santa Anita. I spent much of the early part of Breeders’ Cup day hobbling around with the cane. Lucy told me, “You know, you’re making this tougher than it is. Look, it’s very easy, act like you’re dancing. Put your foot out, don’t try to walk on the balls of your feet, walk on your heels.” Her advice did help, but not as much as Adoration’s victory did. In our excitement to get up from our clubhouse table to go and congratulate the winning owners, John and Jerry Amerman, I forgot all about the cane and walked on without it.
Two years later, on July 23, 2005, I was again in England to do the World Series Racing Championship trophy presentation at the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes. That year, it was run at Newbury Race Course (Ascot was undergoing a major renovation). The Duke of Devonshire, who manages the Queen’s horses at Ascot, invited me to attend a luncheon being held in honor of the Queen at Newbury on the day of the race. There were approximately twenty people at the luncheon, and I was fortunate enough to know about half of them, having met them previously at other events in England.
After lunch, the group moved to a viewing room that overlooked the finish line. From time to time the Queen would join in the conversations or sit down and chat with someone. The atmosphere was very relaxed. About an hour or so before the race, I went over to sit by her, and we talked about Keeneland, and about her racing stable. In filling in a moment of conversation, I said, “I know, Ma’am, you’ve presented many trophies during your life. Do you recall the presentation two years ago when I dropped the trophy?”
“Oh, I do, indeed, Mr. Bassett,” she said. “I have a photograph of you on your hands and knees picking it up.”
We both laughed. I said, “The Aga Khan’s horse, Azamour, is the 5–2 favorite in this year’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes. Wouldn’t it be a coincidence if he won it again?” The Queen looked at me and said, “If he does, please hold the trophy firmly, Mr. Bassett.”
In the stretch, a 50–1 shot made a game try at getting the victory, but at the finish it was Azamour prevailing by 1 ½ lengths. The Queen presented the Aga Khan with the stakes trophy. The winning trainer was summoned to the ceremony, and after him the winning jockey, and then I was given my cue. I shook the hand of the Aga Khan, and he grinned at me and said, “Let’s keep a firm grip on it this time.” And I did. Losing my right big toe was enough. I had no desire to lose my left one.