Steve Sexton, who served as president of Churchill Downs racetrack from 2002-09, died Dec. 12 after battling brain cancer. He had turned 57 in September.
As head of Churchill, Sexton improved the track facility and the profitability of Kentucky Derby (gr. I) week, which set attendance and wagering records under his watch. Kentucky Downs president Corey Johnsen said Sexton also did a lot of small things behind the scenes to improve the sport.
"He was one of the greatest racing executives of all time," Johnsen said. "Just one example was a few years ago the disabled jockeys were in danger of losing funding. He knew there were 50 riders who needed that help. Steve personally got involved. He made it his mission to make sure the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund was properly funded.
"A lot of things would come up where Steve would be the first guy to step up and do everything he could. He was always that guy."
In 2009 Sexton took the helm of Churchill Downs Inc.'s entertainment division. While at Churchill, Sexton oversaw a $121 million facility rebuild that included 80 suites and seven unique hospitality areas, creation of the NBC Derby Red Carpet Show, a $20 million personal seat license program, and a fully integrated marketing effort with NBC Sports.
“All in the Churchill Downs Incorporated family are deeply saddened by the passing of former Churchill Downs racetrack president Steve Sexton, and our deepest sympathies go out to his wife Kim; son Taylor; daughter, Kalli, and his family and friends during this difficult time,” said Bill Carstanjen, CEO of Churchill Downs Inc. “Steve led Churchill Downs during key years of change for both the institution and the Kentucky Derby. He also tirelessly served the Louisville community through membership on the boards of several community organizations. Along with his deep experience in horse racing and race track management, Steve brought enthusiasm and boundless energy to everything he touched at Churchill Downs. Today is a very sad day for all of us at Churchill Downs and Steve will be greatly missed."
Sexton's daughter Kalli posted on Facebook about losing her father.
"God gave me the best dad there is; he blessed so many lives and I am so grateful to have been a part of his family," Kalli Sexton said. "He had a way of lighting up any room he walked in, a way to make any person smile. My mom even called him "guy smiley" because he never wiped the smile off his face. If Steve was around, then there was always laughter and jokes. He was a comedian every day."
Sexton previously served as president of Arlington International Racecourse and head of Churchill's Illinois operations. While at Arlington, Sexton guided the track through preparations for the only Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships to be hosted by an Illinois racetrack.
Sexton most recently had served as managing partner of LOGE, a subsidiary of HKS Sports and Entertainment. LOGE provides strategic advisory services to professional teams, sports stadiums, colleges, and various sports facilities.
Sexton first became involved in racetrack management in 1983 when he held the post of sales promotion manager at Santa Anita Park. In 1985 Sexton was appointed assistant marketing director at Canterbury Downs, and in 1986 became assistant general manager/director of marketing for Golden Gate Fields. In 1991 Sexton was appointed general manager at Thistledown near Cleveland.
In May 1994 he was appointed assistant general manager at Lone Star Park and was involved in the start up of the Texas track. He was promoted to executive vice president and general manager in January 2000 and served in that capacity until joining Arlington as executive vice president in April 2001. He was appointed president of the racetrack four months later.
A native of Topeka, Kan., Sexton graduated from Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., with majors in economics and psychology.
During his time in Louisville, he was active in the community through his work with agencies that included the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Greater Louisville Inc., Kentucky Derby Museum, Thoroughbred Racing Associations and the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund. Sexton also served as a co-chair of the South Louisville Business Association Awards.