John A. Bell III, Prominent Thoroughbred Owner-Breeder, Dies at Age 88

John A. Bell III, Prominent Thoroughbred Owner-Breeder, Dies at Age 88
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
John A. Bell III, prominent horse owner-breeder who died Wednesday.
By Associated Press and Blood-Horse Staff

John A. Bell III, the prominent Thoroughbred owner-breeder who founded Jonabell Farm and was involved in the American Horse Council, has died at 88.

Bell died Wednesday evening at St. Joseph Hospital Hospice in Lexington after battling pulmonary fibrosis. Visitation was scheduled for Friday, Feb. 2, from 2-4 p.m. and from 6-8 p.m. at the Keene Barn at Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington. Graveside services, under direction of Kerr Brothers Funeral Home, were scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 3, at the Lexington Cemetery. Pallbearers will be Bell’s grandsons and sons-in-law.

Contributions are suggested to the Bell Endowed Chair at the University of Kentucky, Office of Development (attn: H.I. Stroth), Sturgill Building, 120 Rose Street, Lexington, KY 40504; Hospice of the Bluegrass, 2312 Alexandria Drive, Lexington, KY 40504, or to the charity of one’s choice.

Bell sold Jonabell Farm, best known as the final home and resting place of Triple Crown winner Affirmed, in 2001 to Sheikh Mohammed.

Raised on a farm near Pittsburgh, Bell used the proceeds from the sale of a litter of pigs to buy his first mare. He founded Jonabell Farm in Fayette County in 1954.

“You can search the world over and not find a more respected role model in the Thoroughbred industry than John Bell," said Nick Nicholson, president and CEO of Keeneland. "Unmatched for his integrity and respectful of opposing points of view, he was an enlightened leader at the regional, state, national and international level who worked for the betterment of the industry while seeking no credit for himself. A highly successful breeder and owner, he had a major influence and impact on such important Thoroughbred industry initiatives and organizations as the Interstate Horseracing Act, North American Graded Stakes Committee, the Kentucky Racing Commission and The Blood-Horse Magazine.  The Thoroughbred industry has lost a valued leader and I have lost a true friend and mentor.”

"If one would write a job description of the perfect owner, breeder and representative of the Thoroughbred industry, John Bell would be the epitome," former Keeneland chairman James E. "Ted" Bassett III, said in a 1990 interview.

Epitome was the name of one of the best horses raced by Bell, whose other major stakes winners included two winners of the Spinster Stakes (gr. I) at Keeneland: Try Something New and Hail a Cab.

Epitome won the 1987 running of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) and was named champion 2-year-old filly that year. Epitome was bred by Bell's daughters, Jessica Bell Nicholson and H. Bennett Bell.

Bell raised Never Say Die, the first American-bred horse to win the English Derby, said Ed Bowen, president of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation.

Other major winners bred, or co-bred, by Jonabell Farm include One For All (bred with E.V. Benjamin III), grade I winner Swing Till Dawn, multiple grade II winner Essence of Dubai, and multiple grade III winners Gray Slewpy, Adreamisborn, and Forest Glow.

Bell was also involved in formation of the American Horse Council and was actively involved in legislation creating the Interstate Horseracing Act that legislates simulcasting in the U.S. Bell was also former president of the Thoroughbred Club of America, a director of the Breeders’ Cup Ltd. and the Grayson Foundation. He also served on the Kentucky Racing Commission.

He served as president of the Thoroughbred Farm Managers Club; was president of the Thoroughbred Club of America and was an honored guest of that association; was vice president and a trustee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association; director of the Grayson Foundation; served as director of the Thoroughbred Breeders of Kentucky; and was a steward of The Jockey Club.

"He was so remarkable in that he had a grasp and an ability to be influential in the whole range of aspects of the Thoroughbred industry and the sport," said Ed Bowen, former editor of The Blood-Horse. "He was willing to put a lot of effort into the good of the game as witnessed through being a racing commissioner, officer of TOBA, involved in the American Horses Council, and involved with the Interstate Horse Racing Act while maintaining a well-respected bloodstock agency and farm. Fairness and integrity were not only his personal goals; they were part of the fabric of everything he did. And he had a great sense of humor."

His daughter, Bennett Bell Williams, said that in his last days, her father had also become involved in creating the Bell Chair for Alcohol and Addictions at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine.

She said her father was a recovering alcoholic, sober for 30 years.

"He spent a lot of time helping others who had the same misfortune," she said.

He graduated from Princeton University and attended Harvard School of Business. He first came to Kentucky on a vacation in 1946 after he served in the military.

He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Jessica Gay Bell; daughters Jessica Nicholson and Bennett Williams; sons John A. Bell IV and James G. "Jimmy" Bell.

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