Inspired Visionary

By Greg Avioli
Last October John Gaines sat in the living room of his early 19th-century home in Lexington watching the telecast of the Breeders' Cup with his son, Thomas, and wife, Joan. His daughter, Gloria, was attending the races at Lone Star Park. John was in good spirits and excited about the prospect of seeing the 21st edition of the championship event he created two decades earlier.

Unlike previous afternoons spent together, there was little talk of industry politics or strategic initiatives. This was a day for racing, and for five hours John was nothing more than a passionate fan of the sport. He was especially pleased to see his old friend Lord Derby win the VO5 Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT) with Ouija Board.

While perusing the Daily Racing Form before the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), he correctly picked the 28-1 longshot Wilko as the winner. Later, his simple explanation: "He clearly was the best horse in the race."

John had the amazing ability to synthesize large amounts of information and draw immediate and clear conclusions. In that respect, his mind was a perfect match for the intricacies of the racing and breeding industries.

When I first met this icon of the Thoroughbred industry in 1997, John was busy assembling support for the National Thoroughbred Association, an owner-driven initiative that ultimately led to the formation of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. I was a 33-year-old sports marketing consultant who was an outsider to the Thoroughbred industry. We became close friends in the ensuing years and John proved an invaluable source of inspiration, perspective, and optimism. In the twilight of a remarkable life, his passion for the sport and the industry never diminished.

This passion was perhaps best felt in a speech John gave to the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers' Club in January 2001. At the time, the industry was engaged in its usual infighting, and the future of the young NTRA lay in the balance. Sensing the urgency of the moment, John spent days crafting his remarks. That snowy winter night proved a pivotal moment for the industry he loved.

His call for renewed commitment to a unified industry was powerful. Quoting the Greek historian Herodotus, he said, "All of us are standing on the banks of the river; and if we wish to influence history, we must step down from the bank and stand in the middle of the stream in order to change the direction of the current."

As a student of history, he developed an amazing eye for rare artifacts. He possessed a prized collection of medallions dating back to the Middle Ages. John explained that great men of that era commissioned gold or silver medallions for posterity, containing their likeness on one side and demonstrating their interests or passion on the other side. The centerpiece of his collection was a medallion commemorating Galileo, another great thinker willing to challenge the status quo.

With the passing of John Gaines Feb. 11, I have been wondering what would be most appropriate on the back side of this great man's medallion. Clearly there would be fierce competition for limited space, given John's many and varied interests. An ancient manuscript, a wise owl, a tree of knowledge, or a lantern radiating insightful light--all of these images would represent John Gaines the man and the transformative power of his vision. But thinking back to October and the look in his eyes as he watched his last Breeders' Cup, I would expect at the center of that medallion would stand the proud statue of the Breeders' Cup ecorche horse--not as a reference or symbol of one of his most significant achievements, but as an expression of the grace and noble purpose that great ideas acquire when they become a living reality to us all.

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

GREG AVIOLI is the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's executive vice president of legislative and corporate planning.