An Incredible Journey - By Jim Williams

On the eve of retirement, it hardly seems possible that it’s been 38 years since Ted Bassett welcomed me to Keeneland as the company’s director of publicity. I’ll never forget the first day on the job and Bassett saying, “It’s always ‘we,’ never ‘I,’ ” indicating this would be a team effort. That was the beginning of an incredible journey, providing me with memories of phenomenal people, great horses, historic events, and unbelievable changes.

What a treasured experience to work under the direction of Ted Bassett and next to Bill Greely, Stan Jones, and Rogers Beasley in the early years as Keeneland emerged as a world leader in racing and sales. You always could be assured that Bassett’s stern reprimand would be followed a few days later by a timely compliment. I can’t fail to mention Nick Nicholson, Harvie Wilkinson, Jessica Green, Geoffrey Russell, and G.D. Hieronymus, all of whom have brought innovation to Keeneland in recent years.

To an upstart like me during the 1970s, auctioneer George Swinebroad was a bigger-than-life character who bragged that he “hired, fired, and kicked a _ _ so that I have the best auctioneering team in the world.” That excellence continues today. Then, there were longtime track superintendent Hobert Burton—an artist on the racetrack—and racing secretary Howard Battle, a racetrack-wise man of intellect who always was ready to challenge the status quo.

Publicizing Keeneland never was difficult because of the continuing parade of outstanding horses that competed on the racetrack or passed through the auction ring. Foremost was Spectacular Bid. Purchased for $37,000 in September 1977, he returned two years later to win the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) en route to victories in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness (gr. I) and multiple championships. I had the good fortune to witness other outstanding performances, including Alydar’s 13-length gallop in the 1978 Blue Grass, Skip Away’s stakes-record-setting performance in the race 18 years later, and Bayakoa’s 11 1/2-length score in the 1989 Spinster (gr. I), her first of two straight wins in the race. The list of great horses that raced at Keeneland only begins there.

While I wish I could say I remember seeing each of them go through the ring, many outstanding runners and sires graduated from the sales during my stay, including Alleged, Alysheba, A.P. Indy, Curlin, Nureyev, Serena’s Song, Storm Bird, Sunday Silence, Winning Colors, and Zenyatta. And, that’s not to mention the many prominent broodmares sold by Keeneland or the historic dispersals held here.

It’s been my good fortune to take part in many important events at Keeneland. Greely and I were dispatched to the British Embassy in Washington so we could instruct the Keeneland staff on proper etiquette for Queen Elizabeth II’s historic visit in 1984. Who could forget the scene in April 1978 when the aging Admiral and Mrs. Gene Markey stepped out of the Keeneland station wagon long enough to watch Alydar romp to victory in the Blue Grass? And, there were so many historic moments in the sales pavilion—the first $1-million sale in 1976, the world-record $13.1 million paid for Seattle Dancer in 1985, the $10.5 million paid for broodmare Playful Act in 2007, not to mention the bidding wars between Sheikh Mohammed and first Robert Sangster and then John Magnier. The annual distribution of charitable funds to the community always was a much anticipated occasion.

So special at Keeneland were the mornings and the opportunities to interact with such legendary trainers as Wayne Lukas, Mack Miller, Carl Nafzger, Shug McGaughey, Tony Basile, Rusty Arnold, Woody Stephens, and such unforgettable characters as cigar-chomping Joe Bollero, the ebullient Doug Davis Jr., and a special friend, Chuck Werstler, an ageless fedora atop his head and his dog, Hank, at his feet. I’ve always been fascinated by jockeys like Don Brumfield, Pat Day, and Jerry Bailey, who displayed the same tenacity on the golf course that he did on the racetrack.

And, there has been change. Keeneland was one of the first tracks in North America to adopt a system that allowed bettors to buy and cash tickets in any amount and type at any window. Who could have imagined that we would communicate our signal around the world via satellite and more than 80% of wagering dollars would come from off track? Or that Keeneland would install a racing surface containing carpet fibers, jelly cable, rubber particles—all mixed with sand and wax.

I’ll forever cherish the opportunity to work for the Thoroughbred industry leader that is Keeneland. These past 38 years have been a phenomenal experience beyond description.

Jim Williams, Keeneland’s director of communications for 38 years, retires Dec. 31.

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