When one thinks of Keeneland, a distinct image comes to mind: classy, a commitment to excellence, a reverence for tradition.
When one thinks of longtime Keeneland leader James E. “Ted” Bassett, those same phrases are applicable.
Near the end of Keeneland’s fall meet, Bassett will celebrate his 100th birthday. That day will no doubt include a stop at Keeneland, where Bassett will be as congenial with one and all as he will be sartorially splendid, moving with equal amounts of grace in conversing with a hot walker at the track kitchen or a business titan in a corporate suite – or even the Queen of England.
Queen Elizabeth II paid her first visit to an American track in 1984 at Keeneland, where she presented the trophy to the winning connections of a race named in her honor. She was so taken with Bassett that Her Majesty later invited him and his wife, Lucy, to come to London and join her at the famed Royal Ascot meet.
“Keeneland never was like it is today before Bassett got a hold of it. I think he did a magnificent job of making [certain that] this [place] was the best racetrack in the country,” said longtime friend Alex Campbell. “I don’t think there’s a Keeneland employee that didn’t love [Ted]. He was Mr. Keeneland as far as I’m concerned.”
The path to Keeneland was anything but typical for Bassett. He parlayed his Yale education into a successful sales post in Manhattan, but the pull home from the Bluegrass grew strong. Without a job lined up in advance, Bassett became a tobacco farmer. He described that work as “back-breaking,” so assuming a post with the Kentucky State Police as an officer was too good to refuse. His success in overseeing the KSP through the tumultuous decade of the 1960s and rebuilding the image and morale of his officers along the way made him an attractive candidate when
Keeneland was looking to groom a new leader.
Bassett joined the Keeneland team in 1968, moving from president to chairman of the board in his career there.
When he started out at Keeneland, Bassett was charged with moving the racing and sales operations forward in a changing world while maintaining that commitment to tradition for which the track is known. It was a task Bassett described in a KET interview as being akin to piloting a battleship in a swimming pool – and this former Marine proved quite adept at this nautical maneuver.
When Sir Ivor – who was sold at Keeneland in 1966 – won the 1968 Epsom Derby, the sales pavilion at the Lexington track soon developed an international flavor, and Keeneland had to adapt. “We didn’t know the difference between a franc and a hot dog,” he joked in an interview for Keeneland’s oral history project, “Life’s Work.”
Bassett’s tenure as president coincided with an explosion in the thoroughbred yearling sales market, culminating with a then-record $13.1 million sale price for a single yearling in 1985.
Bassett operated on a parallel path for eight years when he added Breeders’ Cup president to his duties at Keeneland. He oversaw tremendous growth in that organization, including taking the world championship day of racing to Canada for the first time in 1996. Bassett retired in 2001 but continued to serve as a trustee.
Bassett has also led the way on various civic and charitable causes, such as securing funding to preserve the trophies of the legendary Calumet Farm at the Kentucky Horse Park and establishing the Gluck Equine Research facility at the University of Kentucky.
“If I had but one wish,” Bassett said in that KET interview, “it would be to do it all over again.”