Keeneland’s Ted Bassett – My Life
by James E. “Ted” Bassett and Bill Mooney
The University Press of Kentucky 2009, 406 pages

Even though Ted Bassett’s father worked for the famous Greentree Farm and Stud, owned by a branch of the Whitney family, and was a vice president and director of the Keeneland Association in its early years, Ted himself did not grow up in the horse-racing business, as he was away from his Bluegrass home for much of his youth.   Mr. Bassett was sent to boarding school in Connecticut at age 12 and then went to college at Yale.   After graduation, he served as a combat officer in the U. S. Marines during World War II.   Immediately following the war, he worked for the Great Northern Paper Company in Maine and New York City.   When Mr. Bassett and his wife, Lucy, finally decided to relocate to their native Kentucky, he did not become employed in the racing industry right away, albeit his wife’s family owned and raised Thoroughbreds in Woodford County.   Mr. Bassett became a racing executive when he was in his mid-forties, and his exemplary career lasted about four decades.

Prior to his going to Keeneland as an assistant to the president, Mr. Bassett served as Director of the Kentucky State Police.   In 1967, he commanded the force when they were called upon, in conjunction with the Kentucky Army National Guard, to make sure that the Kentucky Derby was not disrupted by civil rights protestors.

For people interested in the intricacies and challenges of the business side of horse racing, this book is full of examples and observations having to do with a variety of important racing enterprises.   Mr. Bassett was not an entrepreneur, but rather, was an implementor of ideas.  For instance, he played a key role in bringing the late John Gaines’ Breeders’ Cup concept to fruition.   Mr. Bassett was a leader and an executive par excellence with the Keeneland Association, the Breeders’ Cup, the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, Equibase, and the World Series Racing Championship.   This vantage point allows him to provide an insider’s views of his dealings with people ranging from royalty, sheikhs, and the director of the FBI, to blue-collar folks who worked at Keeneland.

However, this book is not a dry treatise on administering a racetrack, a sales company, and other racing-related ventures.   Mr. Bassett and Mr. Mooney inform the reader about Mr. Bassett’s years in boarding school, in college, during World War II, and so on through his life, with appealing and often self-effacing anecdotes.   For example, Mr. Bassett amusingly tells of the time that he reported his car as stolen, only to find out that it was not.   Shortly thereafter, he was stopped in his car by a Kentucky State Police officer because he forgot to rescind his earlier report.  This was an embarrassment, to say the least, for the former commander of the state police.   In another incident in England, Mr. Bassett dropped a trophy on his toe that he was presenting to a winning owner.   Adding to his chagrin, Queen Elizabeth II was looking on.   This faux pas turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it may have saved Mr. Bassett’s life.   The vignette recounts the fortuitous ending.

How Mr. Bassett and others raised the money to prevent the Calumet Farm trophies from being auctioned off in a bankruptcy proceeding is edifying.   Some of Mr. Bassett’s other fund-raising endeavors focus on non-racing institutions in central Kentucky and therefore may not be of interest to people outside that region.

Mr. Bassett candidly assesses the economics of horse racing today in the era of simulcasting, off-track wagering, slot machines, and intense competition for the entertainment and gaming dollar.   He discusses how his thinking has evolved on the issue of slot machines at racetracks.

Ted Bassett typifies what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation,” Americans whose attitudes and approaches to living were shaped as children and young adults in the crucible of the Great Depression and World War II.   While Mr. Bassett was from a family of some means, he nonetheless readily volunteered when his country needed him in war and did not spend those years in a cushy non-combat assignment.   Members of his generation, to which the rest of us owe so much for their sacrifices and service, are rapidly passing from life’s stage and it is fortunate that written remembrances like this one leave a record for posterity.

This book is very well written by Mr. Mooney in an easily readable and chatty format.   The text is replete with names of people, horses, and places, yet I only saw two misspellings of people’s names and one typo in the entire manuscript.

One of the book’s redeeming qualities is that a section called Chapter Notes provides sources used to ensure accuracy.   Like all memoirs, time can interfere with accurate recollections and Mr. Bassett and Mr. Mooney have been careful to check their facts.   For instance, they used photographs to see who was in the five-person bidding party on a high-priced yearling that was sold at Keeneland.

Mr. Bassett applied the principles and lessons that he learned as a young man to his career in racing, as well as to helping worthy non-profit organizations like the YMCA and hospitals.   He discusses his life philosophies and experiences without coming across as preachy or self-absorbed and he is forthcoming about shortcomings like his temper.

For those attracted to the business side of horse racing, Mr. Bassett provides a valuable historic record of a man with unique insights.   He was integrally involved  in some of the important racing decisions and organizations of the past four decades.  While younger people were not around during many of the events and times referred to the in the book, they still can learn from the candor of a man with a world of experiences to offer. 

Copyright © 2009 Horse Racing Business