Image courtesy of Marc Murphy Cartoons

Yesterday, the earthly remains of John Asher made one last trip around the track at Churchill Downs, and he passed for one last time beneath the shadow of the Twin Spires.

It was a fitting goodbye to the man who was the face – and the voice – of Churchill Downs for two decades as Vice President of Racing Communications.

I couldn’t help but remember what Asher said to me when I interviewed him back in 2007. So, just as I asked many of my guests, I asked him how he wanted to be remembered.

“I would love when we get to the great day … if somebody would say ‘Matt Winn would love this guy,'” said Asher, referencing the legendary leader who transformed the Kentucky Derby into a world-class sporting and social event it is today. “I would like to think that I made some contribution the time that I’ve been there.”

Churchill Downs tweeted yesterday, “Not since Colonel Matt Winn has there ever been a person so associated as the face of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby than John Asher.”

Based on that tweet alone, I think it is safe to say Asher will be remembered just as he had hoped. It is easy to imagine that Matt Winn would have loved him; everyone else seemed to love him, and he certainly contributed to the sport of horse racing and the vitality of the Kentucky Derby.

Before Asher joined Churchill Downs in 1997, he was an award-winning journalist. His reporting for WHAS-AM and WAVE-AM in Louisville earned him five Eclipse Awards for “Outstanding National Radio Coverage of Thoroughbred Racing,” a National Headliner, and Scripps-Howard Award. In addition, the Associated Press recognized him seven times as Kentucky large market radio’s “Best Reporter.” He was also recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists, Radio and Television News Directors Association, and Kentucky Broadcasters Association.

Within the industry, Asher has granted the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners’ Warner L. Jones Jr. Horseman of the Year award in 2006; the Charles W. Engelhard Award for excellence in media coverage from the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders; the Dean Eagle Award from the Knights of Columbus; and a media award from the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.

Asher’s contributions to horse racing, the Kentucky Derby, and Churchill Downs are long.

What animated his excellence?

A TRIFECTA of moxie as follows:

        1. Moxie is rooted in joy.

Asher grew up on a farm in Leitchfield, Ky. Like most Kentuckians; his family looked forward to the first Saturday in May with great anticipation.

“My family was a horse racing family – for one day a year,” quipped Asher. But as a child, Asher’s fascination with horse racing evolved into a year-round obsession.

In 1967 at the age of 11, Asher fell in love with horse racing. By high school, he was diving deep into discussions about handicapping. By the time he got to college, he was making the drive from the campus of Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green to Louisville to buy the Louisville Times to read their Derby coverage.

After college, it was only natural that Asher would move to Louisville and make his way telling stories about the sport he loved so much.

        2. Moxie helps quiet children find their voice.

By his recollection, Asher was a reticent child. Hard to believe, given his ease in front of a microphone. But as a child, the words did not come so quickly.

One teacher was instrumental in helping him find his voice. His seventh and eighth-grade teacher at St. Paul Elementary School, Sister Mary Matthias Ward, encouraged her students to fall in love with music, follow the news, and form opinions.

“She just had a great, very open style — especially for rural Kentucky — that just kind of opened the windows to the world for you,” recalled Asher. “She made you think that things are possible and that in a community where it was pretty easy to kind of stay put and not think of stepping outside.”

A common theme among leaders is having an adult in their lives who invests in them and believes them to be unique, essential, and capable of great things.

        3. Moxie needs that one opportunity.

So what does a quiet, shy kid who mumbles a lot naturally gravitate towards? Radio, of course.

Asher shocked his family when he went for a part-time gig at a radio station in Elizabethtown.

“I think the first time I sat down and threw that mike open and said something, it was a kind of a light bulb going on,” Asher remembered. “It just opened up a new way of looking at life for me. [It] made me realize that that the thoughts in my head could be translated.”

It was a defining moment for young Asher. In time, that shy, quiet farm kid was telling stories, explaining election results, making connections. Asher took the myriad opportunities a small-town radio station offers, combined it with the curiosity instilled in him by Sister Matthias, and found his voice.

Asher took a chance when he flipped a switch on that microphone. So did the station manager who hired him. Both demonstrated moxie.

Final thoughts

Back in 2007, I asked Asher if he could travel anywhere and do anything, where would he go? What would he do? The list came forth readily. He’d go to the Epsom Derby and the Royal Ascot in England. The Prix de I’Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The Melbourne Cup in Australia.

I don’t know that he ever got to do any of those things in the years since our conversation. I hope he did, but I have a feeling that even if he didn’t, he left this world with few regrets, at least when it comes to how he invested his life in horse racing.

“I would love to hit those events because I’ve been to the best one here. It doesn’t get any better than the Kentucky Derby,” he said.

It doesn’t. And that’s because of men like Matt Winn and men like John Asher. Thanks for making the Kentucky Derby great, gentlemen. I tip my Julep glass to you.

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