12/21/2011 4:21PM

Churchill Downs: Julian “Buck” Wheat dead at 78

John H. Harralson
Julian "Buck" Wheat, who died at age 78 Wednesday, was known at Chuchill Downs as the "mayor of the backstretch."

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Julian “Buck” Wheat, who was a revered figure at Churchill Downs after spending more than six decades working and playing in various capacities there, died Wednesday afternoon at University Hospital following a Tuesday fall at his Louisville home. He was 78.

Wheat began working at Churchill in 1949 while still in high school before branching out into other racing-related endeavors, including training, while entrenching himself at Churchill and raising a family in Louisville. He ultimately endeared himself to countless numbers of horsemen, both regulars and visitors, as the director of horsemen’s relations for Churchill, earning the unofficial title of “mayor of the backstretch.”

Three-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert, who befriended Wheat in the early 1990’s, said Wednesday from California that “everybody loved Buck. He was a huge part of the Kentucky Derby experience. Whatever you needed, that was Buck, that was his main thing. We got to be really good friends over the years. It really won’t be the same going back there without Buck Wheat. Maybe there should be a little statue on the grounds there for him. He really was an icon there. He was one of the few people in racing that you never heard anybody say one bad thing about him.”

Wheat was honored in numerous ways by horsemen’s groups and other industry organizations, including the 2001 Dominion Award from Dogwood Stable for meritorious service of the racing industry.

In his later years, Wheat was beset with several illnesses and had trouble walking, but he was still a familiar sight during the Churchill fall meet that ended in late November, using a golf cart to get around in the stable area and riding a nimble motorized wheelchair on the frontside.

Survivors include his ex-wife, Barbara, as well as three grown children and several grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are pending, although Churchill spokesman John Asher said a memorial service would not be held until after the Christmas holiday.