Best comment I ever heard about John Gaines was from Lexingtonian Arnold Kirkpatrick, who said Gaines was "smarter than a tree full of owls."
But intelligence and an ability to see things others could not were only part of the Gaines persona. He was fiercely independent, principled, and courageous.
Employing all of those traits, he was a leader. His death Feb. 11 at the age of 76 begs the question: Will anyone step up to fill this enormous void?
John Sikura of Hill 'n' Dale Farms said Gaines' ideas were "light years ahead of his contemporaries." As a transplanted Canadian operating in the Bluegrass State, Sikura also paid homage to Gaines for breaking through a barrier that made it difficult for anyone other than a handful of farms to recruit a top stallion prospect. Gaines did so with the $1-million syndication of Gun Bow in 1964, giving Gainesway Farm a marquee horse.
"He was an outsider when outsiders couldn't survive," Sikura said. "He competed successfully against pillars of the industry at a time when there were no outside competitors." By doing so, Sikura said, Gaines paved the way for a new generation of stallion entrepreneurs.
In 1965, Gaines addressed the Thoroughbred Club of America on the subject of urban expansion and its encroachment on the horse industry in Lexington. "The approximately 250 horse farms in Central Kentucky support a whole host of specialized businesses that serve the needs of the horse farms," he said. "However, the most important benefit that the horse farms provide for the community is roughly equivalent to whatever the value of a large state or even national park is to an area. At one farm, last year alone, over 50,000 tourists actually signed the guest register and there may have been almost as many more who just came and looked around."
Five years later, in 1970, Gaines was the driving force behind the creation of the Kentucky Horse Park. He said he hoped it would explain how the horse industry's taxes "build municipal buildings, schools, and roads...(The park) can do a great deal toward explaining that everyone has a stake in racing."
Both quotes demonstrate the awareness of Gaines that the general public did not understand the significance of the horse industry. The Breeders' Cup, the innovation for which he will be most remembered, was designed to give the sport the year-end championship it was lacking, thereby raising that awareness.
His vision for the actual event succeeded, though by the mid-1990s the Breeders' Cup stirred little interest among the general public, as measured by television ratings. Gaines was getting restless.
He turned his attention to a concept brought to him by Lexington advertising executive Fred Pope that would put racehorse owners in control of the sport. The venture, known as the National Thoroughbred Association, attracted support from many powerful owners, but Gaines was convinced by others to merge the NTA into a new organization that would have equal representation from racetracks. That was how the National Thoroughbred Racing Association came into existence.
Gaines was acerbic in his criticism of some Thoroughbred industry leaders whom he referred to as the "self-appointed guardians of the Turf." He chided the industry for being stingy with marketing dollars, saying that the "Putt-Putt Golfing Association spends more money on advertising than the $25 billion racing and breeding industry."
He believed, as NTRA commissioner D.G. Van Clief Jr. said, "in the power of ideas"--more than anyone the horse industry has ever known.
It is a measure of the man that his shoes will be difficult, if not impossible, to fill. Read more about John R. Gaines in the Remembering John R. Gaines section of bloodhorse.com.