John Asher: ‘Mr. Kentucky Derby’ Had an Unmatched Love for the Sport

The Life
John Asher, Vice President of Communications for Churchill Downs shown in 2014 emceeing the Kentucky Derby draw, passed away on Aug. 27 at age 62. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Welcome to another edition of America’s Best Racing’s Main Track. Each week in this spot we present the most meaningful story of the past seven days, detailing a story that stands out because of its importance or perhaps the emotional response it generates.

Looking ahead, if you believe there’s a story this week that should be featured in next week’s edition of the Main Track, let us know by tweeting it to @ABRLive using the hashtag #ABRMainTrack.

As for this week’s story, it centers on a somber week in racing.

This past week was billed as a festive holiday weekend in Thoroughbred racing, yet in some corners of the industry everything seemed to move at a slower, sadder pace for a while.

On Monday, Aug. 27, the racing world was jolted by the tragic news that John Asher, the longtime vice president of racing communications for Churchill Downs, had passed away suddenly from an apparent heart attack at the age of 62.

His role as a vice president at Churchill Downs was, of course, his official title. To most people involved in the sport, Asher was better known as “Mr. Kentucky Derby,” the man who was synonymous with America’s most famous race and was deeply beloved and respected across all lines of the industry.

"To say that racing has lost one of its giants with the passing of John Asher does not begin to capture the impact this man has had and will continue to have on the Churchill Downs family," said Churchill Downs President Kevin Flanery. "His passion for the Kentucky Derby, horse racing, his Western Kentucky University Hilltoppers, great music, and above all else his loving family was genuine and infectious. Racing has lost an icon. I, and many others, have lost a kind and generous friend. We will miss John's laugh, his unmistakable voice, and his unique storytelling. Our hearts and prayers are with his wife Dee, his daughters Heather, Erin, and Emma and his grandsons, Cameron and Caden."

The hearse procession for John Asher at Churchill on Sept. 4. (Coady Photography)

If there was a person destined to be the face of publicity and good will for the Kentucky Derby, it was Asher. He was bred in Kentucky, raised there, educated there, worked there, and raised his own family there. He joined Churchill Downs in 1997 as a publicist, but had covered the Kentucky Derby for years before that as an Eclipse Award-winning radio journalist for radio stations in Louisville. In the course of the last 21 years, he became the Derby’s most well-known historian and his wit and charm won him an army of admirers who were crestfallen at the news of his passing.

“People throughout the industry felt gutted for a few days when they heard the news. It’s a great presence that’s gone,” said Jim Gluckson, a senior consultant for the Breeders’ Cup who handled media relations and publicity for the event for more than 30 years. “The sadness it created in our own world reminded me of the reaction in the news media when Tim Russert of ‘Meet the Press’ died suddenly (in 2008). John reached you in a personal way.  Even if you didn’t know him that well, you felt John was your friend. It’s a rare feeling.”

Gluckson himself has been involved in publicizing racing since 1986, when he first went to work for the Breeders’ Cup’s marketing firm and has enjoyed a long and successful career of his own as a publicist for the Breeders’ Cup. Through more than 30 years in the industry, he looked at Asher as someone who set a standard of excellence for the next generation of racing publicists and served as an example of how a love for the sport can be communicated.

“John built his own job. Churchill Downs let him go with it and he became synonymous with the Derby. He had an amazingly engaging personality and he knew so much about the Derby and horse racing. He also had such a great relationship with the horsemen and would write volumes and volumes of copy about them and the sport in his flowing prose,” Gluckson said. “It was always a treat to watch John moderate the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby post-race press conferences and see how he would bring his great understanding of those races to the forefront while making the winning or losing connections feel at ease while talking about their experiences. I always admired that.”

And for as much as sadness as Asher’s passing sparked, there was some solace in knowing that he was able to live life to the fullest. He had a tremendous family and a countless number of friends, and he also spent every day for the last two decades doing something he deeply loved which gave him so much joy and satisfaction. The world would surely be a better place if all of that could be said about everyone.

“There was always a sense of excitement when you wanted to talk about the Kentucky Derby with John. You loved seeing him and that big smile on his face when he talked about the Derby,” Gluckson said. “There was no question he loved his work. You could see or hear it in his voice. Every day seemed to be a blessing for him since he loved what he was doing.”

Just as racing was so blessed to have John Asher as one of its most prized possessions.

Here are some of the other noteworthy stories from last week in U.S. horse racing:

Jockey Mike Smith among NTWAB award winners

Instagrand future wager favorite for BC Juvenile

Stronach Group plans multi-track Pick 5 wager

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