(Photo by Holly M. Smith)
Normally, there is so much activity on the backside of Churchill Downs every morning this time of year.
Normally, there are horses prancing and dancing.
Normally, there are dozens of exercise riders chatting in English, Spanish and any other dialect that it takes to communicate with their horses.
Normally, there is a huddle of trainers around the clocker’s tower. Coffee in one hand. Stopwatch in the other. Condition book tucked in the right hip pocket of the blue jeans. Opinions tucked in their minds and on their tongues.
Normally, there are grooms sloshing water bucks and waving hoses to cool down and bathe their horses.
Normally, there is a food truck, with vendors peddling sausage biscuits; eggs on toast; fruit juice and sports drinks.
Normally, there is the ringing of a farrier’s hammer, as the men labor to carve out the perfect set of new shoes and plates.
Normally, there is a lot of commotion in the mornings. Lots of noise. Lots of stirring around.
But nothing about this morning was normal. This morning was stoic. This morning was quiet. This morning was sad.
And, this morning should have been spelled mourning.
People lined the rails, alright. But uttered not a word.
Horses were seen standing and watching. But whining not.
Not a person stirred, or so the moment warranted.
Not a horse moved, or so it seemed.
Not a whisper of a breeze moved through the air.
The only thing moving, it appeared, was the ceremony.
Slowly, and at the same time, suddenly, a progression emerged.
(Photos by Holly M. Smith)
Out of the morning sky, which was just beginning to shed the full light and powerful heat of a massive sun, there appeared a single, long, white hearse. On each side of the sparkling car, and accompanying the limo with both style and grace, were three Churchill Downs outriders. Each of them outfitted in dress whites, and deeply rich red sports coats.
On the lapel, each rider wore a single red rose.
How appropriate. How stylish. And, how fitting.
A single red rose.
The forever symbol of the Kentucky Derby.
And, other than those grand family occasions that he loved so dear, the Kentucky Derby was the single most important event that drew both tear and smile from the man who loved, revered, honored, cherished, symbolized, and embodied the Kentucky Derby more than any other person — either past or present.
Tuesday morning was John Asher’s victory lap around the greatest, most renown, most historic racetrack in the world.
It was just a week ago that the racing world was shocked by the loss of one of our greatest, most enduring, most faithful ambassadors. While vacationing in Florida with his family, John Asher — a man who built much of his life in and around the Kentucky Derby and his beloved Churchill Downs — passed.
Since then, not a single moment has ticked on without someone — and, at the same time, nearly everyone — who had the pleasure to know this kind, generous, jolly and fun man, has not spoken kindly and fondly of John Asher.
Seemingly, we all have had our stories to tell. Our memories to recall. Our exchanges to remember.
To listen or read each one rekindled memories that brought both tears and smiles in ready supply. And, each one helped us all cope with the harsh reality that our lives on this most beautiful piece of ground lasts about as long as the greatest two minutes in sports.
Each one helped us all reflect and come to gripes that one of the best people to ever place foot to dirt on these hollowed grounds would no longer be here in person to spirit in another Triple Crown season, or bear witness to yet another edition to the greatest horse race in history.
But Tuesday morning, in quiet solitude and in our own way, we all got to say goodbye to the man in the hearse. We got to salute his passion, and praise his friendship. We got to raise our hands in tribute for his grace, style, and professionalism. We got to feel our hearts beat and break at the same time in loving kindness to the one man who was genuinely kind to every, single person he met — whether it be a member of the Churchill Downs Board of Directors or a hot walker in the barn of Dale Romans.
At the same time, we got to say hello to the spirit that hung over the grounds that is Churchill Downs. In a stagnant, stifling summer air, we got to feel the gentle breeze of spirit. We got to see the power of love. We got to listen to silence, and how beautiful the single note of a bugle can be. We got to taste the very essence of what John Asher always saw in this place every single day — beauty.
It didn’t take long for the beautiful white hearse to roll along and out of sight.
I hope it takes longer to forget the man that rode so stately inside, and what he stood for.
I hope it takes a lifetime of lifetimes.