03/25/2014 3:41PM

Ralph Wilson, Thoroughbred owner/breeder and Buffalo Bills founder, dead at 95


Ralph Wilson, the founder and owner of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and a Thoroughbred owner and breeder, has died at the age of 95.

Wilson is best known in the Thoroughbred world for breeding 1991 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Arazi, whom he sold for $350,000 to Allen Paulson at the 1989 Keeneland November breeding stock sale. Running in the colors of Paulson’s Brookside Farm, the son of Blushing Groom won seven of his eight starts as a juvenile, capturing three Group 1 events in France before his electrifying win at Churchill Downs. Honored as Horse of the Year in Europe, Arazi was a Group 2 winner in France as a 3-year-old, but fizzled as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby.

In the name of his Oxford Stable, Wilson raced homebred graded stakes winners Key Dancer and Doubles Partner. He also bred and sold Jim French, whose six stakes victories included the 1971 Santa Anita Derby and who was the subject of an ownership controversy at the end of his racing career.

Wilson also gained notoriety for establishing a buyback record that stood for 23 years, purchasing back a Northern Dancer colt he had bred for $7.5 million at the 1985 Keeneland July yearling sale.

Wilson was one of the founding owners of the American Football League – which the National Football League merged with in 1970 – and was the longest-tenured active owner in the NFL. Formerly a minority owner of the Detroit Lions, Wilson founded the Bills in 1959. Under the owner’s stewardship, the Bills made four consecutive Super Bowl appearances in the early 1990s. Wilson was a member of the 2009 class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Wilson was born in Columbus, Ohio, on Oct. 17, 1918, and moved to Detroit during his youth. He graduated from the University of Virginia and went to law school at the University of Michigan before enlisting in the Navy during World War II. Following the war, he took over his father’s insurance business and eventually founded Ralph Wilson Industries, securing the fortune that he would later invest in the sports world, as well as in philanthropy and education.

The Bills have held their summer training camp at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., since 2000; the owner helped fund construction of a building that houses the school’s College of Education, which is named in his honor. Wilson also founded the Ralph Wilson Medical Research Foundation, established grants for sports fields in Buffalo and Detroit, and made charitable contributions to a number of other organizations in the Western New York area.

Wilson is survived by his wife Mary and two daughters Christy and Edith. He was preceded in death by daughter Linda Bogdan, the first female scout in the NFL, in 2009.