05/18/2009 11:00PM

Getting to know a man of many hats


TUCSON, Ariz. - I first met Ted Bassett during his presidency of Keeneland, probably 30 years ago, at one of the many racing meetings where our paths crossed. My impression then, and ever since until last week, was that he was a tall, gracious, patrician world ambassador for Thoroughbred racing.

Then I read his autobiography, written with Bill Mooney, titled "Keeneland's Ted Bassett: My Life," and discovered that while all my first impressions held true, I really knew relatively nothing about this multi-talented man, or his fascinating career, in and out of racing.

I did not know of his education at the Kent School in Connecticut and then Yale - a route well-traveled by those to the manor born - but I could have guessed he had an Ivy League background, complete with five years of Latin and four of French, with the beer flowing at Mory's Temple Bar, the "dear old Temple bar we love so well" of song and legend. He also found time for crew, basketball, and baseball.

I never could have guessed about his enlistment and boot camp training at Parris Island and subsequent Pacific duty with the Marines on Okinawa and in Japan, or his Semper Fidelis Marine honors in 1990, or how that whole chapter came about.

His three years as director of the Kentucky State Police were definitely unknown to me. I did know of his presidency of the original Breeders' Cup, and subsequent roles as president of Thoroughbred Racing Associations and leader of Equibase and the World Series Racing Championship, and his being awarded both the Jockey Club Gold Medal and the John Galbreath Award and three honorary degrees. He tells the full story of those developments in the book, some with hilarious overtones.

As he recalls that colorful history, he fills in the blanks in a career hardly duplicated by anyone in American racing.

While the path from Kent to Yale is well traveled, it normally does not lead to the U.S. Marines. It turns out that Ted and four of his wartime classmates were hoisting a few at Mory's in New Haven in April 1942, "getting a little drunk," when one of the five suggested, "We all ought to join the Marines Corps." After a few more pitchers of beer, they jumped into a convertible owned by one of the group, drove to New York City, and enlisted. Ted became a first lieutenant, then left the Marines seeking a new beginning.

While learning about newsprint for Jock Whitney's Great Northern Paper Company after the war, and coming to like remote little Milllinocket in the northern Maine woods, where he served first as a millhand, he was transferred to New York City. One morning a vice president of sales called him in, mentioned Bassett's upbringing in Kentucky, and said, "We've been thinking of assigning you to southern territory." Elated, Ted told the VP that he was deeply appreciative and wouldn't disappoint him. And the vice president replied, "We're going to start you in south Philadelphia."

Bassett left Great Northern at 32, with no job prospects, and became a tobacco farmer on a small spread near Lexington, Ky., a gift from his in-laws. He was settled and happy with his wife, Lucy, and their 20 acres, when Pete Widener, who helped engineer the rebirth of Hialeah and inherited Elmendorf Stables in the Bluegrass, talked him into joining him at the Kentucky State Police. Happy Chandler, later commissioner of baseball but governor of Kentucky at the time, was a Democrat, Bassett was an independent, but a registered Republican, and Widener commanded him to change his affiliation immediately, after Chandler had asked Widener about Ted's political leaning. Ted drove to Frankford the next morning and changed his registration to Democrat, and ultimately became a progressive, reforming leader of the Kentucky State Police. Sic semper politicus.

The last half of Bassett's book will inform and entertain the deepest racing purist, and the not-so-pure as well.

He writes about Alydar and D. Wayne Lukas, Pat Day and Nick Zito, Daily Racing Form's Joe Hirsch and Churchill Downs's Tom Meeker, Arazi, Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, Cigar, and Go for Wand, Ron McAnally and legendary auctioneer George Swinebroad.

Ted tells of an incident at a Keeneland sale where Swinebroad was auctioneer. A bid-spotter yelled to George, "Hey, that bidder is drunk." Swinebroad roared, "Throw him out." Then, as they were leading the drunk out, Swinebroad asked the bid-spotter, "Has the guy got any money," and the spotter yelled, "Yeah," whereupon George, with his stentorian tones, announced, "Bring him back."

Bassett also writes about Ricks Natural Star, now forgotten but the original horse - not Mine That Bird - hauled by trailer 1,900 miles from New Mexico by his veterinarian owner to the East, in this case to the Breeders' Cup at Woodbine. The horse was a $3,500 maiden claimer and the vet mortgaged his house to get him to Toronto. Media flipped for the story. This newspaper carried three front page stories about Ricks Natural Star before the race. Like Mine That Bird, he went off at more than 50-1. Unlike Mine That Bird, he ran out of gas and finished a distant last. All hands and hooves survived.

You will like Ted Bassett after you read his story. And you will like his book.