10/16/2001 11:00PM

Bassett quits as Keeneland chair

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James E. "Ted" Bassett III announced Wednesday that he is retiring after 15 years as the chairman of the board and 33 years at the Keeneland Association.

"It seemed like an appropriate time for the old guard to yield and let the dynamic new team lead Keeneland into the future," said Bassett, who will turn 80 on Oct. 26.

Nick Nicholson, the president of Keeneland since early 2000, called Bassett "the heart and soul of Keeneland."

"I consider myself a good man with words, but I'm having a very difficult time coming up with the words to express what he has meant to this track," Nicholson said.

The announcement from Keeneland came in a four-sentence release, belying Bassett's long tenure at the central Kentucky track and his role in the association's ascension from a pastoral track and sales company in Kentucky horse country into the one of the most popular and influential horse organizations in the world.

When Bassett arrived at Keeneland in 1968, the track hosted several important horse sales and two three-week meets in the spring and fall. While the track was renowned for its laid-back atmosphere and small-town charm, racing in those days was dominated by the New York and California circuits, and Keeneland was many times an afterthought on the national racing and sales scene.

But all that changed over the next 30 years. Beginning in the late 1970's, the bloodstock market began a dizzying upward spiral, and Keeneland's July yearling sale became the place to be for any serious buyer or seller. Then, in the 1990's, just after the bloodstock boom burst, Kentucky legislators passed a pro-racing simulcast law that began to propel Keeneland and nearby Churchill Downs into the upper stratosphere of racing.

When Bassett first came to Keeneland, average daily purse distribution was only $30,000. Today, Keeneland distributes $600,000 in purses a day, the most of any racetrack in North America.

"It all feels like a fantastic blur," Bassett said, describing the past 33 years.

A Lexington native, Bassett has been chairman of Keeneland since 1986. He began his career at Keeneland in 1968 as an assistant to president Louis Lee Haggin II, and in 1969 was elevated to general manager. One year later, he was appointed president.

Bassett was presented the Eclipse Award of Merit in 1995.

Bassett said he would continue to chair the World Championship Racing Series, which links 12 Grade or Group 1 races around the world in a bonus scheme.

"I'm not fading totally into the afterglow," he said. "I don't think there's a rocking chair for me yet."