Very quietly, John A. Bell III left an everlasting mark on the Thoroughbred industry and the Central Kentucky community he called home. Bell, who died Jan. 31 at the age of 88, stood for all the right things and, more often than not, allowed his actions to speak for him. They always seemed much louder than his words.
Edward S. Bonnie, a Louisville, Ky., attorney who crossed paths with Bell on a number of legal issues over the years involving, among other things, the Kentucky Racing Commission, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, and The Blood-Horse, said of Bell: "He represented the best qualities of people in the Thoroughbred business. If everybody in the horse business or any business acted like John Bell did, we wouldn’t need all the rules that we’ve got. That was his hallmark."
James E. Bassett III, the retired chairman of Keeneland, spoke at a graveside service for Bell Feb. 3. "I said that his most compelling characteristic was his innate humility and his sensitive outreach to those in need who sought his wise counsel, guidance, and reassurance of their ability to overcome and to succeed."
So many people owe thanks to the Jonabell Farm founder, who served on countless committees with numerous industry organizations for more than a half-century. Through his influence at the American Horse Council (which he helped found) in securing passage of the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978, horse owners can thank him for giving them control over simulcasting. He was instrumental in the creation of the Kentucky Horse Park, developed educational programs for farm workers, helped launch TOBA’s Graded Stakes Program, and guided The Blood-Horse as president for a number of years.
Bell’s daughter, Bennett Bell Williams, said his "love affair" with the magazine began in the early 1950s when he became a partner in the Cromwell Agency with Thomas Cromwell, who launched The Blood-Horse as a weekly newsletter in 1916. "He was adamant that editorial and advertising be separate and that the magazine be free to chronicle the industry’s events—which are often controversial—honestly and accurately," she said.
For that, everyone who has ever worked at The Blood-Horse is grateful, and we hope our readers are, too.
Bell was a man who was unafraid to speak his mind. At the 1974 Jockey Club Round Table, Bell said this in a discussion about medication: "The easy way out is permissive medication. The hard way out is to permit no pre-race medication. The easy way out eventually will lead to the complete deterioration of the sport and the industry. The hard way out will restore the integrity of the sport and the confidence of the bettors and eventually will accrue to the benefit of all segments of the very complex Thoroughbred racing and breeding industry."
Even as he served the industry with dedication and distinction, Bell struggled with alcoholism. "He functioned as an alcoholic," Bassett recalled. "There were peaks and valleys, and he made several efforts to stop."
Through the Alcoholics Anonymous program, Bell eventually won the battle with the disease, and May 1 would have marked his 31st year of sobriety. Benny Bell said one of her father's friends in the AA program brought to the visitation a coin he would have received on his anniversary. "We slipped it in Dad’s pocket," she said.
Last year, John and wife Jessica established the Bell Addictive Diseases Chair at the University of Kentucky with a $250,000 gift. The program is designed to help educate medical students and physicians about alcoholism and addiction.
Long before that, however, John Bell was helping fellow alcoholics and addicts in need. There is an expression in recovery programs that "you can only keep what you have by giving it away." John Bell gave, and many are richer for it.