(Don Ball, along with wife Mira and the rest of his family, passed away on Friday / Photo Courtesy of Ball Homes)

Anyone who knew us both would quickly tell you that our politics did not jive.

Don Ball was the consummate Republican. He dressed the part, feeling comfortable in his gray suit and red tie. He acted the part, too, fitting right in with the “well to do” and the social leaders. He and wife, Mira, often hosted fund raising events that attracted the best and brightest from the business community and the top donors.

Don didn’t say much. Didn’t have to. You always knew where he stood in the room, and on the issues.

I, on the other hand, was easily recognized as a Democrat. The long hair was a tip. But the short temper was just the fuse to my emotion and passion which I wore like a badge of honor to every fight that I decided was worth fighting.

I talked a lot. Found the need to, I guess. But you always knew where I stood in the room, and on the issues, too.

A funny pair, we must have made. At least to those who found us together, chatting about the things we loved the most: horses, politics, Habitat for Humanity, sports, government, and how best to help the poor and downtrodden.

There probably wasn’t a more appropriate “Odd Couple,” than Don Ball and me.

We first met in the late fall of 1988. It was then that I was selected to follow the charismatic and politically polished Nick Nicholson as the Executive Vice President of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners & Breeders’ Association.

Why? I have absolutely no idea. Not then. Not now.

As fate would have it, Don Ball was the incoming President of both Associations.

While not a member of the blue-blood mafia, and not born into the Bluegrass Thoroughbred aristocracy, he found himself as the next person to step up and lead the organizations. As Don Ball always did, he stepped up.

So, in truth, while neither one of us probably would have sought out each other on our own, we were suddenly thrown together in a blender of a Thoroughbred industry world that was tumultuous, rapidly-changing, and controversial.

I was nowhere near ready to handle the job, in any capacity. Don, on the other hand, was ready, willing and able. And, he relished it the job, the controversy, and the opportunity to mentor an aspiring young man hell bent on making his mark.

At the time, the horse racing world was just embarking on the idea of televising its’ races, and sending the signal to other racetracks around the world in the form of simulcasting so that their respective fans could watch and wager on the action.

And, as crazy as it might sound today, that scared the crap out of most everyone in the business that had “606” as a telephone area code. (That was the precursor for “859” which is used today.)

Churchill Downs saw it as a grand opportunity to make more money, and increase public awareness. A good thing.

The Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, led at the time by a power-hungry egotist by the name of Ed Flint, saw it as a grand opportunity to make Churchill Downs squirm – since the track had to have his permission to send the signal.

Each year, the HBPA would threaten to hold the signal hostage until it got more money; more concessions; more liberties; more. A convenient thing, to some degree.

Out of the midst of that controversy came the KTA. And, subsequently, there came this marriage of Don Ball and Gene McLean. The Odd Couple. Certainly, a strange thing.

Who would know that this shotgun marriage would turn out to be one of the most rewarding, most educational, most exciting, and, at the same time, one of the most difficult times of my young life.

Don Ball, you see, was a brilliant man. Other than allowing a young Thoroughbred to get too close and nip off the tip of his forefinger when he was a youngster, he didn’t make many mistakes in judgment or many errors in character.

Born in Henderson County to a family that didn’t have electricity in the home, Ball made his own way in the world. Paid his own way through the University of Kentucky. Ran for State Representative in an area that was predominantly poor and led by minorities. Became the youngest member to ever serve in the General Assembly at the time. And, was the lone sponsor of a sales tax increase that became known infamously as “Louie’s Nickle” – after the late Republican Governor Louie B. Nunn.

He knew politics and how to play the game. Even when you didn’t understand his logic. He knew life and how to play that game, too. Most of all, though, he knew people and how to play them.

And, the combination of all those qualities, gave Don Ball the upper hand – even though most people didn’t understand him, or give him much credit.

Instead of fighting the HBPA, which the KTA was first created to do, Don Ball reached out to them and developed life-long friendships. He knew that it would be easier to get things done that way. In his heart, he hated being an “in-house union” for or to anybody or anyone.

Instead of fighting the Standardbred industry, which the Thoroughbred interests had the easy upper hand over, Don Ball reached out to them and developed a working relationship. He knew that it would be more productive that way. In his heart, he knew that the harness racing industry was the “red-headed stepchild” that deserved better.

And, instead of trying to convert me from my political faith, he reached out to me and told me to follow my own path; build my own relationships; be friend to my lifelong friends. He knew, by instinct, that we could and would make a great team.

And, we did. Every single day, we talked. Often times, I would go to his farm and we would sit in his office, and talk. Some times, when we traveled, he would have his antique Rolls Royce pulled out and ready to go. Always, he wanted me to drive.

You should have seen the faces of the servers when we pulled through the drive-thru at a Wendy’s located near Ellis Park in Henderson – Don Ball’s hometown.

And, you should have seen Don’s face when Marty Maline and I had to tell him that a softball had hit the beautiful car during a backside, pick-up game.

For the record, Don Ball laughed. Anything and everything he had in his life, he shared freely.

In 1989, we were the ones to help pass legislation that would speed the way toward simulcasting of in-state race signals to all other tracks located in the Commonwealth – despite the objections of Don’s chief adversary Tom Meeker – the President of Churchill Downs at the time.

In one encounter in the Capitol Annex cafeteria, Ball and Meeker exchanged pleasantries that were not very delicate. Meeker, an ex-Marine, seemingly challenged Ball to a fight – right then and there.Ball, knowing then he had already won, snickered. Meeker asked: “I’m going to kill your bill. What are you going to do about that?”

Ball, never looking up from his lunch plate, mumbled:

“Whatever I am big enough to do.”

Great retort. A line I have borrowed and used often since then, always giving the author credit.

We won. And, it turned out to be a huge development, and instantly doubled the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund and help increase purses at all Kentucky tracks.

Throughout that legislative session and legislative battle, I would give Don a daily update. More often than not, I would deliver the somber news first.

Don, always, would come back with his favorite line about legislation:

“Nothing is as good as it looks, or bad as it seems,” he would say. “It is always somewhere in-between.”

He was right, of course. And, it applied to more things than just legislation. It applied to life.

A few years later, Don was not as excited about the possibility of passing legislation to allow for “whole card simulcasting.” I, on the other hand, was a determined believer.

For one of the first times, we locked horns. Young bullshiter vs. the old bull. I worked the board to get the votes to support legislation to allow entire race cards to be simulcast into the Commonwealth. Ball, on the other hand, worked diligently to get the votes to contest any such legislative approval.

In a huge Board of Directors meeting, so big that it had to be held at the law offices of Stoll, Keenon & Park, Don and I sat at the head of the table and waited for the meeting to start. Just before he hammered the meeting to order, he leaned over to me and said:

“Do you have your votes?”

Flustered, because I didn’t even know he knew that I was working to get them, I stumbled around long enough that I didn’t have to answer.

“If you are as good as I think, you do,” he said, with a sly smile.

I did. The KTA-KTOB voted to support the legislation. And, we passed that bill, too. After the bill was signed into law, Don Ball called me and said:

“You were right. Good job.”

It was one of the greatest compliments that I ever received. The next year, we passed legislation to allow for “Off Track Betting” in the Commonwealth for the first time.

When the opportunity came to kick-start that company, I left the KTA-KTOB to become the first President of KY OTB. I hand-delivered my letter of resignation to Don at his offices at Ball Homes in Lexington.

We sat and chatted. Most of all, we laughed at the memories of both good and bad. Don Ball wished me well, and we shook hands. As I turned to leave, he grabbed my arm.

“You are ready,” he said. “You are going to do well.”

High praise. Especially when it comes from your mentor.

Over the past 20-some years, Don and I would occasionally run into each other from time to time. Always, we would chat and laugh. He would always ask about my family, and, in turn, I would ask about his.

Over the past 20-some years, Don and I would fight from afar. He was a steadfast opponent to expanded gaming. I, on the other hand, worked for a collection of people that supported it.

To date, he has won that one. So far.

But on this day when we say good-bye to our friend, ally, opponent, contrarian, Humanitarian, I would love to tell him that I appreciate all that he did for me; taught me; invested in me; instilled in me; and how much I admire the man he was, and the man who always did what he was “big enough to do.”

Yet, I am sure if we had that exchange, he would look back at me and say:

“Nothing is as good as it looks, or as bad as it seems. It is always somewhere in-between.”

And, we both would smile, knowning that we truly did jive. At the core. At the heart. At what mattered the most.