Shining Lights - By Frank Angst

Through some magical combination of glass, tinting, and air conditioning, sunshine immerses occupants of the atrium dining room at the Thoroughbred Club of America in Lexington while keeping heat and stuffiness at bay.

On a mid-August Wednesday in Central Kentucky where high temperatures and humidity had locals referencing dogs and days instead of horses or Wildcats, the TCA atrium view pleasantly tricks the brain into thinking it’s one of those spring days that practically require Lexingtonians to leave work early for Keeneland.

This is where World War II veterans James E. “Ted” Bassett II and Richard Duchossois met for lunch Aug. 14. This is where, less than two weeks after each had been inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame as Pillars of the Turf, Bassett and Duchossois, who, respectively, guided Keeneland and Arlington to racing’s heights, met former Turfway Park owner Jerry Carroll for a mid-day meal. 

Just days after fans had packed a still-gleaming Arlington to watch Chad Brown sweep three grade 1 races on the Arlington Million Day and young people had crowded historic but innovative Keeneland for a music festival, the two 97-year-olds talk about the outstanding facilities that have kept racing a spectator sport in Lexington and Chicago.

“The secret is making just enough changes to modernize but never too much,” Bassett said. “Don’t change it too much.”

In between bites of salad, the conversation turns to two-time Arlington Million (G1T) winner John Henry, Secretariat making his first post-Triple Crown triumph start at Arlington in 1973, and the time 23 years later the Chicago area track landed Cigar for his 16th straight win.

And at some point, the conversation turns to the sport’s characters, the sport’s legends. Duchossois said late Racing Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham, who trained some of his horses, impressed him.

“He was just different. He was different back at the stable, he was different with (owners), and he was different at the racetrack,” Duchossois said. “For all his success, he was one of the most modest guys to be around. He went out to our farm one day and our farm manager said, ‘That’s a turf horse.’ Charlie looked at him and said, ‘No horse will tell you what it’s going to run on.’ He knew horses backward and forward, backward and forward.”

Bassett had his own story involving Whittingham, recalling visits to Southern California to recruit top 3-year-olds for the then $50,000 Blue Grass Stakes, for which the trainer initially wasn’t too impressed.

“I’d go into his barn and talk with him and leave this orange Keeneland stakes nomination pamphlet there,” Bassett said. “I’d come back a little bit later and see those orange pamphlets in the wastepaper basket. So I’d reach down in the wastepaper basket and put them back on his desk.”

Bassett said for him, racing’s most unforgettable character is the late Charles Cella, who owned Oaklawn Park. Bassett recalled how in industry meetings of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations or other groups, Cella consistently would oppose any change.

“You would count on that ‘No,’ from Charlie when it came to that,” Bassett said. “He was very principled on traditions.”

While they sometimes found themselves with differing opinions for the sport’s direction, Bassett was glad to call himself a friend of Cella and respected how he advanced Oaklawn racing and the Arkansas Derby (G1).

“Charlie loved to throw a party; he was a great, great party-giver. He threw a party in St. Louis where he ended up bringing his guests up to Chicago, flew them all up, 20 or 30 people on a chartered plane,” Bassett said. “I never knew what he was going to do.”

To which Duchossois added, “Well, you knew he was going to stand on a table and sing the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ or ‘God Bless America.’ ”

Lunch eventually wrapped up, but the sunlight continued its kind, ageless embrace.

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