A great many things have been written and said about John Asher approaching this first Kentucky Derby since his death last August. I’ve struggled with what to say until today, when I got an assist from Churchill Downs and its president, Kevin Flanery.
My last assignment before hitting the road to cover the first college football game of the season last August was to react to the heartbreaking news that Asher was gone. He’d traveled to Orlando with his family and suffered a heart attack. I did the best I could, quickly, with that stunning news, knowing that you never can do a life justice in a situation like that, especially a life like John’s.
I thought there would be other chances. Then I went to Orlando myself, and suffered a stroke, and one of the tougher things about that, frankly, was not being there for John’s moving memorial service at Churchill Downs, and missing those moments.
So on Derby Day 2019, when Flannery announced that a statue of Asher sitting and talking with the architect of the modern Kentucky Derby, Matt Winn, will be placed in the shadow of Churchill’s iconic Twin Spires, hopefully to be unveiled by opening day, 2020, it was an emotional time for a great many of us, his family most of all, and those who worked with him at the track or in the media. It was for me too, but it also allowed some things to work themselves out within me.
Churchill got this one right. As Flannery has said many times, Asher represented the soul of the place — and its conscience.
You may know a little less about Winn, but he’s the man who took over a struggling horse race and made it glamorous. He aggressively marketed the Derby. He knew that image mattered and courted the press like few in sports did in those days. So badly did he want big-city papers to cover the race that he had a special train from Chicago to Louisville to bring reporters. He ushered in the $2 win ticket and pari-mutuel betting. He sought out celebrities and courted the best-known owners and their horses. He hustled. He got the Derby onto the cover of Time magazine. He understood that the race was more than a race. There was romance to it.
That same spirit animated Asher. I always smiled at the notion of Asher being a vice president at Churchill Downs, because I knew he didn’t care so much about the track making money as he did about the track being great. And sometimes, the two find themselves at odds.
IMAGES | John Asher’s impact on Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby
Asher knew it was important that the media feel welcome at Churchill Downs, even at a time when corporate concerns made it less welcoming. It’s not just a Churchill thing. It’s everywhere. It’s just life in 2019. But in Winn, Asher found a kindred spirit, someone who also had a heart to reach out on behalf of this beautiful spectacle, to give people a positive experience, or even a positive feeling, to keep painting the picture of its past on the canvas of his life.
I heard stories about track renovations, when people would bring him old items and ask if they were worth keeping, and it would be something with a connection to Winn, or a picture of him, and he’d quickly take it, preserve it and celebrate it.
Now, look, one thing that immediately strikes me is that statues are supposed to be old guys, like King Louis XVI or Abe Lincoln or George Rogers Clark. They’re not supposed to be of guys you’ve had lunch with or talked to a dozen or more times in the past year.
Frankly, we don’t do statues like they used to. And that’s a shame. But if I had to run through a list of people I’ve known in life who I thought would make a good statue, Asher beside Winn in Churchill Downs is, to borrow a term you hear around racetracks often, a sure bet.
Asher’s fondness for Winn’s story and legacy was an appreciation for what makes the Derby what it is, and a desire to keep tapping into that, even amid change and growth. John’s was a strong, deep voice that spoke from the past. There was always a tidbit to remind you that whatever news was happening today, there was a story before that wasn’t all that different, a challenge that was met, a win that might have been forgotten by many, but not him.
When they put up a statue of someone you knew as flesh and blood, well, it’s different. Those of us who knew him won’t ever look at it without remembering him and the things he said and did and loved.
But statues aren’t just for us. They’re for the people who didn’t know him. They’re for the people who come along behind us.
And the message of those two guys talking, in the shadow of the Twin Spires – which themselves now sit in the shadow of other structures – is this: Listen to these men. Remember who they were and the race they were so passionate about. Don’t forget what they believed made the race great.
They’re going to sit beneath those spires, as if in conversation. Two grand voices of the place, now silent, but whose words can still be heard like distant hoofbeats that invite us always to remember.