John Gaines Remembered: 'He Believed in the Power of Ideas'

Brilliant. Determined. Independent. Selfless. Responsible. Innovative. Cantankerous. Those are just a few of the words friends and associates of John R. Gaines used to describe the man former National Thoroughbred Racing Association commissioner Tim Smith called "an American original."

Gaines, who developed Gainesway Farm into one of the world's leading breeding operations and conceived the idea for the Breeders' Cup, died in Lexington Friday at the age of 76.

"Whatever the hallmarks of great men throughout history and time, he had them all," said his son, Thomas Gaines. "He had a great deal of conviction. A brilliant mind. And he possessed a spirit that just wouldn't quit. We're just all fortunate he happened to be here with us in our little corner of the world."

D. G. Van Clief, who last year succeeded Smith as NTRA commissioner, has been a Breeders' Cup executive from the outset of that organization in 1982. Gaines was "a most amazing man," Van Clief said, citing his far-reaching impact, along with his "immense intellectual curiosity and capacity for learning" in the horse industry, education, the arts, literature, architecture, genetics, farming and politics. "Above all," Van Clief said, "he was a believer in the power of ideas."

Van Clief also spoke of how Gaines liked to "shake things up" to inspire change. "John would rather poke a stick in a hornet's nest than leave it alone," he said. "He liked intellectual tension."

Keeneland chairman and former Breeders' Cup president James E. Bassett III said of Gaines: "Beyond his well-known contributions to the industry--Gainesway Farm, Breeders' Cup, National Thoroughbred Association--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."

"This is a profound loss to me personally and to the industry," said Hill 'n' Dale Farm owner John Sikura. "He's a man who was truly without peer." Sikura recalled the friendship that developed between Gaines and his late father when he came to Kentucky from Canada in the early 1980s. "He was personally and socially responsible, and he was brilliant in his business. He competed successfully against pillars of the industry at a time when there were no 'outside' competitors. He was one of the first, if not the first, to come to Kentucky from New York, start a commercial nursery and turn it into one of the most prominent farms in the world.

"I remember an old cover from The Blood-Horse that called him racing's 'Renaissance man.' He certainly was that. His ideas were light years ahead of his contemporaries. You can cite so many things that he did: breeding to larger books, assigning bonus seasons, importing stallions to make them influential sires, and starting the Breeders' Cup. Not only was that his idea, he was selfless enough to step aside when acrimony developed. Not many original members did that. He was a bigger man than most."

Sikura remembered Gaines' courage and willingness to speak out. "He stood up to a lot of people. He would often comment on certain people, calling them the 'self-appointed guardians of the Turf.' He found flaws in the industry--that we can be incestuous, that power keeps re-emerging in the hands of a few-- and he openly challenged those ideas."

Olin Gentry, a third-generation horseman who became a business partner with Gaines, said, "He was a very, very close friend, a mentor. He was a father figure to me, in a lot of ways." Gentry collaborated with Gaines to form John R. Gaines Thoroughbreds in 1992, three years after Gainesway Farm was sold to Graham Beck. Gentry is now a partner in the venture with Gaines' children.

Gaines' timing was impeccable. When he re-entered the breeding industry, bloodstock prices had bottomed out after falling by 50% or more over a seven-year period. "I got together with him at the 1992 November sale at Keeneland," Gentry said. "He said he felt like a kid in a candy store at that sale. The prices on good mares were so inviting."

One of the mares Gaines-Gentry purchased that November, through agent Mike Ryan, was 19-year-old Glowing Tribute, an outstanding producer sold in a dispersal of Paul Mellon's Rokeby Stables. The purchase price of $460,000 looked like a bargain when Glowing Tribute's son Sea Hero won the following year's Kentucky Derby. Mackie, the Summer Squall foal she was carrying at the time of the sale, sold as a weanling in November 1993 for $550,000. Her next foal brought $660,000.

"His main focus had been on stallions at Gainesway," Gentry said. "But he was always a player for the proven mares. One thing he always said about older mares was that he loved selling a foal from a proven mare because you didn't have to tell any stories.

"He was very imaginative. He didn't limit his view of his own personal business by status quo boundaries. There was nothing that he viewed necessarily as impossible. He was never afraid to explore new things. I think he was one of the few if not the only man in the business who had the vision and determination to create and see through the development of industry causes."

One of Gaines' industry causes was the formation, with his longtime marketing adviser Fred Pope, of the National Thoroughbred Association. The NTA, which proposed a league office driven by horse owners that was modeled after the PGA Tour and men's professional tennis, enlisted Tim Smith and Hamilton Jordan, two former White House aides during the Jimmy Carter administration who had experience in the aforementioned sports. The NTA led the way for the formation of the NTRA, a coalition of owners, breeders, and racetracks.

"I came to have a lot of affection for John and his family," Smith said. "He treated me almost like a family member. We would stay at John's house and got introduced to the Renaissance man side of him. We'd see the antique coin collection, the Van Gogh sketches, hear about the Breeders' Cup, what his college life was like, what he did in World War II. He was a great story teller, thought in serious ways about serious issues, but also was a big patron of the arts. And he was encyclopedic about the history of Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds. He could be cantankerous and almost relished the intellectual combat and political combat from time to time.

"W.T. Young (who died in January 2004) was one of his closest friends. Some of my favorite memories were with the three of us. John would usually have some new conspiracy, new concept, new germ of an idea. It would be a bank shot. He'd want me to hear it at the same time as W.T., thinking that together we could help shape the ideas. They respected each other's intellect and toughness and candor.

"One of John's endearing qualities was fierce independence. I almost hesitated to bring him an idea that had been blessed by a strong coalition, or, God forbid, by the 'establishment.' It could be a solution or an issue that he normally would be an ally on, but if too many people were for it he would be innately suspicious as a contrarian."

Smith recalled a particularly tough issue during the NTA's infancy, when many people would have called for spin control or avoidance of the facts. "He said to lay it out honestly and say 'this is what's going on,'" Smith said. "I'll never forget a line he then quoted from Machiavelli's The Prince: 'The best guile is no guile.'

"He was an American original. A fascinating man."

Read more about John R. Gaines in the Remembering John R. Gaines section of bloodhorse.com.

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