03/28/2013 4:14PM

Catching up with Ted Bassett

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Photo courtesy of Keeneland
Former Keeneland chairman Ted Bassett runs Lanark Farm with wife Lucy.

If you want to catch up with Ted Bassett, you have to move at a brisk trot. The former Keeneland Association chairman, now trustee emeritus at age 91, has a full schedule, starting with an important morning ritual: feeding the family pets at Lanark Farm, the Midway, Ky., property that Bassett’s wife, Lucy, inherited from her father in 1983.

“All of our pets were strays,” Bassett said. “We have three cats. We just lost our dog about a year and a half ago, and I haven’t been able to overcome his passing. I am the designated food-preparer for the menagerie. They’re all meowing and calling, so I start there and then I come to the Keeneland kitchen and find out what’s going on in the world. It’s a great international crossroads, our kitchen. All sorts of interesting people drop in, and we have a lot of visitors from out of state. So that usually starts my day on a bright note.”

And a healthy one. Keeneland’s track kitchen is beloved for its hearty egg-and-bacon breakfasts as much as for its conviviality, but Bassett takes the high road gastronomically. “Same thing every morning: It starts off with V8 juice, hot tea, and bran with banana and raisins,” Bassett said. “And I go back in the back and help ’em do it. They peel the banana, and I’ll pour the V8 juice.”

Not surprisingly, Bassett pays close attention to Thoroughbred industry issues and debates – not just as an industry leader, but as a farm owner. His wife owns eight mares at Lanark, and, Bassett said, “Today, we’re going through some of the same trials and tribulations that most mid-range breeders are going through. The broodmare band is getting older, as are we, and it’s very difficult to keep the quality of your broodmares up unless you’re able to race a good filly that has earned some black type to qualify as a broodmare. But the farm is, I’d say, maintaining itself. We raise a large number of cattle and are contemplating a larger acreage of corn this coming year.”

Lanark traditionally sells its yearlings at the Keeneland September sale, most recently through Mill Ridge’s agency.

“Mrs. Bassett is the total boss, and she consults regularly with John Williams, who is her sort of guru for the last 10 or 12 years,” Bassett said. “He’s been very professional and takes great pains over the matings, inspecting each stallion to see about conformation.”

When it comes to racing, Bassett understandably is bullish on synthetic surfaces. Keeneland became the second U.S. track to make that transition for racing when it installed Polytrack on its main oval in 2006. “I think it was the right thing to do, and we did it primarily for the safety and the welfare of the horse,” Bassett said. “I think in the intervening years that it’s proved out to be a safer surface.”

Bassett won’t be drawn out about his views on race-day Salix, but said he was “surprised and somewhat concerned” when the Breeders’ Cup board – of which he used to be a member – reversed plans to expand its Salix ban from the 2-year-old championship races to all its championship weekend events. Prominent racehorse owner Gary West had threatened to sue over the Salix ban’s proposed expansion.

“I’m concerned whether that would be establishing a precedent,” Bassett said. “If you have a strong difference of opinion between the two parties – the pro-[Salix] and the anti-[Salix] – I’m concerned that it’s now going to come down to the threat of litigation or boycott instead of negotiation. I was also somewhat concerned about the seeming imperative need to make a decision of this nature six months from the event. You’d have thought that, with that time interval, it seemed that time did provide for additional negotiation and possible compromise.

“I want to make it very clear,” he added firmly, “that I have not been privy to the pertinent details of the discussion that went on. This is merely the view of an outsider.”

Bassett applauded West for his offer to put $1 million toward a study of Salix and its effects. “That’s a positive thing to do,” Bassett said. “But there has to be some consideration that, when you have findings from the research, there is some commitment to accept them. It doesn’t do any good to continue the research ad infinitum and go on with the continued controversy.”

Bassett retired as Keeneland’s chairman in 2001, but he’s still a strong presence – and not just figuratively. He shares what he calls “a hideaway office,” a stone house just east of the Keeneland entertainment center, with former Keeneland treasurer Stan Jones. The building, incidentally, once served as Daily Racing Form’s Lexington office. Now it’s the base of operations for Bassett’s numerous activities and charitable campaigns.

A decorated veteran who served in World War II with the 4th Marine Regiment, 6th Marine Division, Bassett currently chairs the Marine Corps Coordinating Council of Kentucky. He co-founded Lexington’s Marine Corps Breakfast, which started as a breakfast in Keeneland’s track kitchen “with cold eggs, overdone bacon, and coffee,” Bassett said. He’s also instrumental in the Salute to the Legends of the Corps, which honors a Medal of Honor winner and raises funds for the Wounded Warrior Project to benefit former service members in need.

“The Marine Corps culture stays for life with at least 90 percent of the Marines that have gone through,” Bassett said. “Once a Marine, always a Marine. I was just an average 19- or 20-year-old young man when I joined. The Marine Corps, fundamentally, tries to take a nobody and make a somebody out of him. Each of us that has gone through that cauldron of Parris Island or San Diego feel a pride in being able to survive it. It’s tough, intense discipline. You’re taken down to being a nobody, and they try through various trials and tribulations to build your self-confidence and build you up into somebody reaching the standards of what they expect a Marine to be.”

One of Bassett’s more unusual projects for 2013: He’s chairing the Hound Welfare Fund’s June 1 dinner and auction at the 133-year-old Iroquois Hunt Club in Lexington. The HWF funds the care of the Iroquois hounds when they retire from hunting. (In the interest of full disclosure, the HWF was co-founded by this reporter.) The HWF’s similarity to Thoroughbred retirement programs appealed to him, Bassett said, as did its potential to serve as a prototype for the nation’s other hunt clubs.

“I’m not a member of a hunt club, but I have a great affinity and love for dogs,” he said. “Here, the object is to give these older hounds or ones that are no longer able to run the chase an opportunity to retire in a healthy environment and live their lives out in ease after giving so much of themselves to the interest and competitiveness of the hunt.”

There’s something about Keeneland, Bassett says, that makes an employee want to contribute to the wider community. His official Keeneland career might have ended after 43 years, but in many ways he’s still an ambassador.

“The community looks upon Keeneland as sort of a national park,” said Bassett, who has led capital campaigns for everything from the YMCA to the Kentucky Blood Center to the Save the Calumet Trophies effort. “As a result, there’s always been a good, strong relationship between Keeneland and the community, and most of us through the years have served on a number of community organizations and civic boards. It’s part of being Keeneland’s president or an employee. When the community calls, you want to respond to the particular need.”

 

James E. “Ted” Bassett


Born: Oct. 26, 1921

Birthplace: Lexington, Ky.

Residence: Midway, Ky.

Education: Yale

Positions: Past president and chairman of Keeneland Association; past president of Breeders’ Cup Ltd.; past president of Thoroughbred Racing Associations; member of The Jockey Club; former trustee of the National Museum of Racing, University of Kentucky Equine Research Foundation, and Transylvania University; former director of the Kentucky State Police

Honors: Eclipse Award of Merit; Thoroughbred Club of America’s Honored Guest