Year in Review | John Asher, in memoriam

Remembering the life, and death, of John Asher, Kentucky Derby ambassador.

The death of John Asher would’ve been a blow whenever it came. I suppose it hit me even harder when, a little more than a week after writing this memorial column in August, I found myself in a hospital in Orlando, the city where Asher died. Having suffered a stroke, I missed Asher’s moving memorial service, the hearse crossing the finish line at Churchill Downs. What John meant to the Derby, and just as much, to people who cover the Derby, still can’t be overestimated. A night or two before Christmas, just by chance, I ran across the Netflix documentary series, “7 Days Out,” which chronicles the preparation for big events. One of the episodes was about the Kentucky Derby, and there was John, announcing the post-position draw, none of us with any inkling that it would be his last. His death was one of the major news events of the year in the world of Louisville sports. We still miss you, John.

John Asher, Kentucky Derby Ambassador, dies at 62

By Eric Crawford, Louisville, Ky.
August 27, 2018

Whenever anyone in horse racing died, and there was a story to be done, my first phone call was to John Asher at Churchill Downs. He always knew exactly the right thing to say.

Today, the track confirmed that Asher died of an apparent heart attack this morning while in Orlando with his family. He was 62. And saying the right thing will be tough, so sudden and significant is the loss. 

Asher spent three decades as an award-winning journalist in Louisville and two more working for his beloved Churchill Downs, the past 19 as vice president for racing communications in a role that seemed so perfect for him that it’s hard to imagine it belonging to anyone else.

He was one of the greatest ambassadors in the storied history of the Kentucky Derby, and probably its most consulted historian. He loved the history of the track, and in a time of corporate expansion, toiled daily to preserve its past.

“John Asher was the soul of Churchill Downs. That’s what he was,” track president Kevin Flanery said. “He was the guy whispering in your ear, whether he was in the room or not, telling you to do the right thing for racing, telling you to do the right thing for the history of the Kentucky Derby. As president of the track, I was always asked. ‘What’s it like to work for John Asher?’ It was the greatest honor of my life.”

One of Asher’s favorite lines was, “It’s always sunny and 75 on Kentucky Derby Day.” Actually, it wasn’t. Often it rained, or was gloomy. But this statement, at Churchill Downs, always was true, whether on the backside or in his office, handicapping or meeting the media or public: John Asher always had a smile, and genuine love for the race he represented and the work he did.

A native of Leitchfield, Ky., Asher fell in love with the Kentucky Derby sitting beside his mother watching Proud Clarion win the race in 1967 on television. It would take him a while, but he would wind up becoming a significant part of the race’s heritage before a long career was cut short.

He came to Louisville as a radio newsman in 1981 and covered his first Derby in ’82. Five times he won coveted Eclipse Awards for outstanding radio coverage of thoroughbred racing at WHAS radio and WAVE radio, the first in 1988.

His deep, resonant voice became a staple of Louisville radio for years until he went to work in the Churchill Downs publicity office in 1997. He nearly left to come back to radio two years later when WHAS pursued him to replace Wayne Perkey for its morning drive time show. Instead, Churchill Downs elevated him to vice president.

Asher called himself, “First and foremost, a WKU fan.” He loved the Hilltoppers and was an avid music aficionado. He took up running over the past decade, and called it his favorite hobby.

Asher also was active on many civic boards and with numerous charitable causes. Louisville mayor Greg Fischer noted that in comments he posted on Twitter after learning of Asher’s death.

“So heartbroken,” Fischer said. “The world knows John Asher as the voice of thoroughbred racing and it’s No. 1 fan — and he was the best. I also know him as a strong community leader fighting for those who have little. I will so miss his presence at Churchill Downs and the streets and boardrooms of Louisville where his humanity shone like a brilliant first Saturday in May.”

The last thing Asher Tweeted was a quote from the late John McCain: “Nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself, something that encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone.”

There aren’t a lot of profiles about Asher’s life among the stacks of clippings containing his name. Asher, it turns out, was always talking about the Kentucky Derby.

Asher gave much of his life to the Kentucky Derby, to his wife and three children and grandchildren.

With the Breeders’ Cup returning to Churchill Downs, it’s difficult to imagine the event happening without him.

One of the most powerful voices the Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs have had has gone silent. He’ll be missed.