Former Keeneland President Ted Bassett Counsels Caution Regarding Casino Bill
Ted Bassett oversaw and guided many changes during his 44 years in leadership of the Keeneland Association Inc., but his fondness for tradition remains unchanged. As Kentucky's horse industry campaigns for casinos, Bassett calls for the preservation of the vision of those who founded Keeneland 75 years ago.
"The mission," Bassett said, emphatically but with a twinkle in his eye. "Emphasis on the spectacle of horse racing, creating a landscape that celebrates the rural environment, tradition and customer service."
To the many people who know him, 90-year-old James T. Bassett III is many things: a legend in the horse industry, Purple Heart Marine, courtly Kentucky gentleman and prankster. He has lived many lives, and through his leadership at Keeneland, he is a witness to the evolution of Kentucky's signature industry.
Bassett was president of Keeneland from 1970 to 1986 and chairman from 1986 to 1991. Although retired to Lanark Farm near Midway, he is trustee emeritus on its 30-member board and has an office on the grounds. His ties to the track remain steadfast. He still visits the Track Kitchen every morning to fetch his bowl of cereal and glass of V8.
Mary Page, the kitchen manager, has known Bassett for 30 years. She started working at Keeneland as a concession-stand vendor. As president on his "morning rounds," Bassett ranked Page's popcorn on a scale of 1 to 10, she said. "He never gave me a 10, because if I thought it was perfect, I wouldn't try harder," Page said. "He's all about quality control."
Bassett is loved by all Keeneland employees, Page said. "From the stall cleaner to the trainer, he doesn't talk to them any differently."
His relationships are international; he's hosted Queen Elizabeth II, right, and is a friend of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the prime minister of Dubai and owner of Gainsborough Farm near Midway.
Page said Bassett doesn't forget a face and "makes people feel at home." He's also notorious for his pranks and dry sense of humor.
Keeneland's chaplain, Mike Powers, remembers one day when Bassett gave him two assigned parking spots, one for his car and one for the golf cart he uses on Keeneland's grounds. "Two signs went up that said Chaplain,'" Powers said. "Then he told me, Now don't ever park on my grass again!'"
"If there ever was a people person, it's him," Powers said. "Even though he's not chairman, he still carries a big stick around here."
But when Bassett first started working at Keeneland, as an assistant and potential successor to the president, his presence wasn't as well regarded. "I was as green as a gourd," he recalled in an interview with the Midway Messenger. A Yale University graduate who had been a newsprint salesman, tobacco farmer and director of the state police, he had never worked in the horse industry.
He credits his experience in the Marine Corps for his ability to adapt successfully to the widely varied roles in his eventful life. "The values of the Marines stay with you all your life," he said. "Commitment and focusing on the objective at hand."
Bassett was recently elected to his sixth term as general chairman of the Marine Coordinating Council of Kentucky. Fellow member Ed Armento said the council "quickly settled" on Bassett to lead the council, which serves Marine veterans and families in the state, because of his visibility in the state and the Marine Corps.
He served as an infantry officer in World War II, where he was part of the initial landing on Japanese islands. "Leading up to all of the success he's had in life," Armento said, "I think his defining moment was leading Marines in Okinawa as a young man."
Bassett vividly remembers his first taste of military life when he arrived at Parris Island, S.C., for training in 1944 and got a Marine haircut: "In 10 seconds your personality changed once they shaved your head. You looked in the mirror and said, My God! Who is that awful looking creature?'"
He figuratively had his head shaven again when he started working at Keeneland in 1968. His peers didn't exactly welcome him with open arms. Many had been there for years and were bitter about his initial, elevated status that would soon translate to being Keeneland's next president.
"It was rather awkward," he said. "But I feel that without my Marine Corps values and experience, I might have been a lost ball in tall weeds for a while." After being broken down and built up many times before, Bassett knew he could "overcome and achieve."
In much the same way, Bassett says Keeneland will thrive in an evolving horse industry if it "rolls up its sleeves and believes in the past 75 years." Keeneland makes most of its money on horse sales, not racing, so it has been able to maintain its traditional feel, and that's the way Bassett likes it: "Quality over quantity and commercialization."
And that's where Bassett is uneasy about casino gambling, which would come to Keeneland and other tracks under a constitutional amendment under consideration in the Kentucky General Assembly.
"I do not feel that it was in the founders' vision of Keeneland to turn it into a glorified gambling emporium," he said. He stressed that this is exclusively his opinion, "a myopic old fossil's vision."
If the gaming amendment passes, Keeneland will form a corporation with The Red Mile and open a casino "somewhere near downtown or close to Red Mile," President Nick Nicholson said. "Keeneland has a philosophy and mission that's at the core of everything we do, and he's been a part of it for many years. And our priorities are the same."
Bassett is remembered at the legislature for the 1994 committee testimony he gave about the "mythical armada" of casino boats headed to the Ohio River. "Bassett told me he thought that armada quote would end up on his tombstone," Nicholson said.
Bassett defended his early stand, noting there weren't any casino boats on the Indiana side of the river. "I changed my opinion when it looked like racing needed it in order to compete," he said. "I didn't quite understand the ramifications."
Kentucky's horse racing industry is losing footing as states like New York, Pennsylvania and Florida use gaming earnings to boost purses and other incentives to breed and foal there. Bassett called the gradual departure of mares and even stallions from Kentucky "an issue that critically needs to be addressed."
The state's racing and breeding industry is "not just a rich man's hobby," Bassett said, noting the small, family-owned farms in the Bluegrass and the nearly 100,000 people whose employment can be traced in some way to the industry, according to studies paid for by the industry. The jobs include other lines of work like veterinarians, insurance companies, automobile sales and farm suppliers.
Bassett said his ideal solution to the migration of mares would be tax incentives to keep them in Kentucky for foaling. Gov. Steve Beshear and the racing industry have a more controversial idea, the constitutional amendment that, if approved by voters, would put casinos at up to five tracks and two other locations.
Bassett said he has accepted the need for the extra income and hopes that Kentuckians will support the amendment. But he doesn't think it is a wise idea to compete with the "full blown" casinos to the north. One is to open in Cincinnati next year.
"They need to be guarded in their thinking that the more casinos allocated, the more revenue the state will make," he said. "We need to be very careful that we don't over-saturate."
Nicholson said he agrees with Bassett that casino gaming is far from Keeneland's early vision, "but the competitive environment has affected the industry." The bottom line, he said, is that Kentucky's horse industry needs expanded gambling to compete. "The reality is, we're surrounded by it," Nicholson said. "And we're about to be surrounded by it even more. I don't think we have a choice but to consider it."
Bassett said, "A great deal of Keeneland's success is that it is different," relying on sales rather than racing. "But my view may be over tempered by my long-term association with Keeneland's early days and the growth we've had."
While Keeneland adapts, as he did in his career, Bassett hopes to see a continued focus on its bread and butter: the spectacle of racing. And the tribune of the "mythical armada" said that if the legislature approves the amendment, "Finally at long last, the public will have an opportunity to express their approval or disapproval on the issue of casino gambling."
(This story was first published in the Midway Messenger, an online publication produced by students of Associate Extension Professor Al Cross in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications).