10/06/2011 3:10PM

Keeneland voices behind the scenes: James E. "Ted" Bassett


James E. “Ted” Bassett

Trustee emeritus
Age: 90
Years at Keeneland: 43
Track president, 1970-1986; chairman of the board, 1986-2001

Do you remember what your first day at Keeneland was like?
I do. And it was extraordinarily uncomfortable.

Why was that?
Because I was very happy and pleased and excited about the opportunity, but if you recall, I came in from the outside without a lot of experience of knowledge about the racing industry. I was away at school at Kent and Yale, and then I was in the Marine Corps, and then I worked in New York, so my exposure was limited. From a managerial and administrative standpoint I came in from left field. I was a green pea, to use a complimentary word. As we went on and got our feet on the ground, we attracted some younger people – Stan Jones, Bill Greeley, Jim Williams – new, young, aggressive, interested, enthusiastic young people. We began then to gain some momentum and a comfort level.

Do you have a favorite memory of Keeneland?
I would think that it is probably the Queen’s visit [in 1984]. That was just a very memorable time for Keeneland. We were one of the first tracks to host her in North America.

You always hear about people having to brush up on their etiquette for the queen. Did you have to do a lot of homework on how to behave?
Yes, we did. The British secret service came over about six weeks prior to her visit. They couldn’t have been more courteous and helpful. They pointed out some of the etiquette and protocol in greeting her, and they also went over what the menu was going to be. In fact, the only, let’s say, demand they made was asking where the trophy presentation was going to be. At that time, Keeneland always went across the track [on to the turf course]. So we made a concession and moved the winner’s circle to the grandstand side. And it’s been there ever since. But that was the only imperative they made, and they only did that for security purposes.

You presided over the first major renovation of the track six years after being named president in 1970. What was your priority at that time?
The priority then remains the same as it is now: trying to emphasize the traditional aspects of Keeneland without any major dramatic architectural change. We try to maintain, over all these years, through the expansion of the grandstand and the acreage of the grounds, that same sort of traditional ambience of a rural racetrack, with great emphasis on the quality of the architecture, but also the quality of the feel of Keeneland. Hopefully we’ve been able to make these major changes to accommodate the growth of Keeneland and accommodate the needs for increased customer comfort without dramatically changing the feel and the public’s expectations of Keeneland.

Do you have a favorite place at Keeneland?
The place I frequent most is the [track] kitchen. I’ve been eating breakfast there, almost the same thing every morning --  cereal, bananas, and a V-8 -- for as long as I can remember. A reporter asked me the other day, “How would you rate the Keeneland kitchen with all the restaurants you’ve visited all over the world? Would you put it in the top five?”  And I said, “I’d put it there as far as warmth and congeniality and camaraderie. But from a gourmet standpoint, there’s a lot of work to be done.”

What? I love that food. I go for the mac and cheese and anything with gravy.
And that’s why I say there’s a bit to be done on the gourmet side. [Laughs]

Do you have a most memorable racing moment?
It’s Spectacular Bid’s Blue Grass [in 1979]. When you think about Spectacular Bid, the media interest and the public interest in Spectacular Bid arriving here – remember, I think he’d won all his Florida preps, and when he won the Florida Derby it was like a rodeo. The media interest, I’ll remind you, used to be more intense. And then he ran a great race, and he also was a Keeneland sales yearling, at $37,000. So that was exciting, because we were keenly interested in having a sales horse involved in the Triple Crown, because the competition in those days was very intense with Fasig-Tipton.

What do you think was the best change for Keeneland over all these years?
I think the turf course was a very historic and meaningful thing. It helped us dramatically in recruiting owners and trainers and gave them another option coming to Keeneland. It was the first turf track in Kentucky, based on a hydroponic base of 14 inches of sand. We could drain in one hour what it would take Mother Nature six. That gave us a lot of opportunities.

Today, the Polytrack seems to be questionable in a lot of trainer’s minds. But if you look at it strictly for reason we put it in, which was – strictly – for the safety and welfare of the horse, it’s proven to be a very intelligent move.


Rogers Beasley, director of racing | Jimmy Young, maintenance

Lewis Leach, mutuels department | Mary Page, track kitchen supervisor

Herb Petit, sales office | Cathy Schenck, head librarian | Bucky Sallee, track bugler