John R. Gaines: A Visionary and a Leader

Racing visionary John Gaines (right) with Joe Taylor of Taylor Made Farm. (Milt Toby/Blood-Horse photo)

John R. Gaines built one of Thoroughbred racing’s most successful breeding operations.

His Gainesway Farm was home to top sires such as Lyphard, Riverman, Blushing Groom, Vaguely Noble, Youth, Bold Bidder, Cozzene, Broad Brush, Irish River, and Sharpen Up.

In the United States and Europe, six of Gainesway’s sires were honored as the year’s champion sire.

Yet if Gaines is to be best remembered, it will be for something he accomplished for his sport rather than his farm.

It was Gaines, along with John Nerud, who played central roles in the creation of the Breeders’ Cup as his vision of one rich, spectacular day of racing has morphed from its 1984 inception into a two-day, $28 million spectacle.

Mr. and Mrs. John R. Gaines with Bold Bidder after winning the 1966 Strub Stakes. (Blood-Horse photo)
He was a founder of the National Thoroughbred Association (which became the National Thoroughbred Racing Association) and the Kentucky Horse Park, and in his lifetime ranked as one of the sport’s most respected and honored leaders.

“John Gaines was a most amazing man,” said D.G. Van Clief, then commissioner of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, as quoted in a Blood-Horse report at the time of Gaines’ death in 2005. “He was a family man, an intellectual, a philanthropist, an activist, a visionary and a leader. He had an immense intellectual curiosity and capacity for learning, which made him, among other things, an expert in fields as diverse as art, literature, architecture, genetics, farming and politics. John also was a great market timer. He knew when to buy or sell, and that included launching his own ideas.

“Above all, he was a believer in the power of ideas. In addition to being the father of the Breeders’ Cup, he'll be remembered as the founder of the Kentucky Horse Park, and the founder of the National Thoroughbred Association, which served as the catalyst in the formation of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. Locally, he’ll also be remembered for his contribution to creation of the new University of Kentucky Library and, most recently, for his instrumental role in the founding of the Kentucky Equine Educational Project, which like so many of his contributions, will likely be an important influence for years to come and, like the Breeders' Cup, will undoubtedly be emulated widely.”

Gaines was born in 1928, and his introduction to horse racing came through his work for a Standardbred farm founded by his grandfather. In 1956, he was the first breeder to syndicate a Standardbred stallion and in future years he would both breed and co-own a Hambletonian winner.

In 1962, he opened a Thoroughbred division of Gainesway Farm and focused on stocking it with sires rather than broodmares. In time, he would revolutionize the breeding industry with numerous innovations, including his introduction of the concept of multiple breeding sessions for sires in the same day.

John Gaines (center) with former Kentucky Gov. Brereton Jones (left) and Kentucky legislator Damon Thayer in 2004.
John Gaines (center) with former Kentucky Gov. Brereton Jones (left) and Kentucky legislator Damon Thayer in 2004. (Anne Eberhardt/Blood-Horse)
As Gainesway rose to prominence in the Thoroughbred industry, Gaines became more active in providing a much-needed voice for the growth and development of the sport.

He first unveiled his thoughts on what would become the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland in 1982 and then used his influence to make it a nationally televised reality.

In 1989, Gaines sold Gainesway Farm to Graham Beck but he returned to the breeding business a few years later when he formed John R. Gaines Thoroughbred that he managed along with his children, Thomas and Gloria, and Olin B. Gentry.

That operation now exists as Gaines-Gentry Thoroughbreds under the leadership of Thomas Gaines and Gentry and together the Gaines and Gentry families have accounted for 25 champions and eight Kentucky Derby winners.

Gaines passed away on Feb. 11, 2005 at the age of 76 and from all corners of the industry there was an outpouring of emotion over the loss of a man who had as profound an impact on the sport as anyone ever has.

“Beyond his well-known contributions to the industry,” said James E. Bassett III, then chairman of Keeneland and a retired president of the Breeders' Cup in the 2005 Blood-Horse report, “the mark of the man for those who knew him will always be his intellectual curiosity, his deep appreciation of the arts, and his willingness to challenge the status quo.”

Fun Facts

  • Gaines and his wife, Joan, headed charitable fund-raising drives that generated more than $100 million for education, arts and sciences, and religion.
  • At his alma mater, the University of Kentucky, Gaines founded The Gaines Center for the Humanities and helped establish the Maxwell H. Gluck Center for Equine Research.
  • Among the many distinguished awards he received in his lifetime was a Special Eclipse Award of Merit in 1985.
  • He was a recipient of the Duke of Devonshire Award for improving English breeding and racing and the Lord Derby Award for contributions to English racing.
  • The Harness Tracks of America presented Gaines with its Award of Merit and the United States Trotting Association gave him a Special Award for his creation of Gaines-Guards, a safety item for racing sulkies.

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