Julian Logan “Buck” Wheat, director of horsemen's relations at Churchill Downs and long known as the “Mayor of the Backside,” died the afternoon of Dec. 21 of complications from injuries suffered in a fall at his home Dec. 20. Wheat was 78.
The Churchill veteran, whose career at the track in various roles spanned more than 60 years, died at about 2:10 p.m. EST at University of Louisville Hospital, where he had been treated since he was found unconscious in his home following the accident. Family members said Wheat did not appear to be seriously injured following the mishap, but they became concerned when he could not be contacted later in the day.
He was rushed to the hospital after family members went to Wheat's home to check on him, but he never regained consciousness. Wheat apparently suffered serious head injuries in the fall.
Funeral arrangements had not been finalized, but family members said there will be no memorial service until after Christmas.
Known simply as “Buck” to owners, trainers, jockeys, and fans, Wheat was the son of trainer Logan Wheat and launched a formal association with Churchill that would last most of his life when he took a job as an usher at the age of 16 in 1949. He attempted to follow in his father's footsteps as a trainer for a few years, but accepted the post of director of horsemen's relations at Churchill in 1986.
That post, in which Wheat served as the initial contact for owners and trainers who brought their horses to compete at Churchill, became the signature job of his long career. Despite occasional health concerns in recent years, Wheat held that position at the time of his death.
Wheat's work frequently wandered far beyond the formal job description. Throughout his time at Churchill , Wheat greeted fans and dignitaries from all walks of life on visits to the track's stable area, and served as an unofficial ambassador for the historic track, the Kentucky Derby, and Kentucky's signature horses industry.
His activities included work as a guide on tours through the stable area, and those efforts led Wheat to his unofficial title of “Mayor of the Backside." Many of his tours, speaking engagements, and other activities benefited charitable organizations and causes.
He was honored several times for his work at Churchill and never-ending charitable activities. The most recent of those honors came earlier this year during Kentucky Derby week when Wheat received the "Dean Eagle Award" from Knights of Columbus Bishop Spalding Council No. 2761. That award, named for the late Courier-Journal sports columnist Dean Eagle, annually honors individuals for their contributions to the Thoroughbred racing industry.
In 2001, Dogwood Stable honored Wheat with its "Dogwood Dominion Award," which annually recognizes "unsung heroes" of the horse industry. As he handed the award to Wheat, Dogwood Stable's W. Cothran “Cot” Campbell said, " 'Unsung hero' is Buck Wheat's middle name."
“We could not begin to name, or even count, all of the people who have worked at Churchill Downs in one capacity or another since our track opened in 1875, but Buck Wheat is part of a very small number who became a true part of the fabric of this institution and the Kentucky Derby,” Churchill president Kevin Flanery said. “Buck was a friend to all who had the good fortune to cross his path, and a great ambassador for Churchill Downs, the Derby and the horse industry, and his efforts went far beyond his listed duties.
"We will forever miss the one and only ‘Mayor of the Backside.’ As a friend and co-worker, Buck Wheat is simply irreplaceable.”
Wheat is survived by three children: Denise, Kevin, and Dennis; five grandchildren and one great-grandchild; and Barbara Passafiume, his first wife and the mother of his three children. Among Wheat's countless friends is his special companion, Debbie Hunt, who shared many joyous moments and special events with Buck and his family and friends in recent years.