Gaines was giant
in horse racing

Feb 15, 2005 1:52 AM

To the guys and dolls pushing the buttons and pulling the levers on the Strip his name won’t mean a thing, unless they also play the ponies.

But to every baker or butcher or candlestick maker, who ever bet a deuce on a nag, he was one of their champions whether they knew it or not. And, whether they knew him or not. He raised many of the best horses they wagered on, and championed many of the causes that made American racing great.

The sport lost one of its good guys — one of its very greatest — last Friday, when John Gaines died.

He was horse all the way through. His interest dates back to a grandfather and a dad, who each raced trotters. They made the family fortune creating Gaines dog food and selling it to General Foods. John started his career as a trotting man and twice won the Hambletonian, the sport’s Kentucky Derby, before switching to the runners and making Gainesway Farm one of the classic thoroughbred nurseries in the world.

His father was patrician and John was an intellectual, superbly educated and a true Renaissance man. He could and would sit and talk with people not from his realm or his intellectual and social circle.

Gaines did not tolerate fools lightly, and made enemies of some who qualified.

He built one of the world’s great art collections, some of which were donated to museums and other works that sold for millions at Christies and Sothebys. Nineteen years ago, drawings that he owned (the most notable being Leonardo da Vinci’s Child with a Lamb) sold at auction for $32 million.

Five times Art News selected him as one of the most important collectors in America. He was both a trustee of the National Gallery of Art in Washington and a director of the Snite Museum of Art at his alma mater, Notre Dame.

Gaines was a philanthropist, who gave or raised hundreds of millions to the causes in which he believed. One was to the University of Kentucky, which houses the Gaines Center for the Humanities. He headed fund raising for the library at that university named for his close friend, the late W. T. Young, and he chaired the fundraising that led to creation of the Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center there.

Religion benefited from his largesse as well, in particular the Catholic Newman Center in Lexington, which houses a collection of religious art from the11th century to the present that Gaines provided. He was a member of the Catholic Lay Commission on Poverty and the U.S. Economy.

Fifteen years ago, he told a reporter, "I’m a very fortunate man. I’ve seen quite a few of my dreams come true."

Two of those dreams were fortunate for racing.

Recalling how the champions of harness racing traveled the Grand Circuit of that sport for a century, he dreamed of a series of championship races for thoroughbreds, which he suggested be called the Parade of Champions. Then he made sure his dream came true. Today it is known as the Breeders Cup, a day in racing rivaled only by the Derby in Gaines’ beloved Kentucky.

He also dreamed of a park dedicated to the horse, and tens of thousands have visited the Kentucky Horse Park, the culmination of that Gaines’ dream. It is a fascinating spot that every horse lover or player should visit at least once.

D. G. Van Clief now heads both the Breeders Cup and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which came into being as a direct descendant of another Gaines dream, the National Thoroughbred Association. Van Clief handicapped Gaines perfectly when he said of him, "He had an immense intellectual curiosity and capacity for learning, which made him, among other things, an expert in fields as diverse as art, literature, architecture, genetics, farming and politics."

When Gaines was a student in prep school at Culver Military Academy in Indiana, he ran cross country and was on the school’s boxing team.

His boxing career was brief, but he never stopped fighting for causes. It is fortunate for American racing that he did.