To say iconic former Keeneland chairman Ted Bassett has led a full life is an understatement: He's done enough for several lives, and they will all be celebrated in a new documentary debuting Monday on Kentucky Educational Television.
Ted Bassett: A Kentucky Gentleman, produced by Matt Grimm, explores Bassett's diverse career, capped by his role as chairman of the Breeders' Cup.
Bassett became an "international ambassador for racing," said Nick Nicholson, former president of Keeneland.
A native of Lexington, Bassett, 90, has deep roots in the community, but his achievements span the globe.
As an undergraduate at Yale when World War II broke out, Bassett enlisted in the Marine Corps. He was sent back to college to complete his degree and go through officer training. After he graduated in 1944, Bassett went to boot camp, something he said was a huge shock.
"I was just an average American like everybody else," Bassett said. But the Corps molded him into a disciplined leader.
"He never left the Marine Corps. He's still in it to this day," horse trainer D. Wayne Lukas says in the film.
Bassett was shipped to Guadalcanal and then to the 4th Marines, who landed on Okinawa in April 1945. There, Bassett was wounded in his right hand and knee. He later received a Purple Heart.
After the war, Bassett eventually ended up in New York, selling newsprint. He married fellow Lexingtonian Lucy Gay in 1950, and they moved back to Kentucky, where Bassett went to work for his father-in-law as a tobacco farmer.
But then he went in another unlikely direction: the Kentucky State Police.
In the 1960s, law enforcement struggled. As Kentucky's deputy director of public safety and then director of the Kentucky State Police, Bassett is credited with eliminating political promotions, doubling starting salaries, adding retirement benefits, and expanding training with the state police academy. During his tenure, the first black state trooper was hired and the training college at Eastern Kentucky University was founded.
He also gave the police a new image, changing their uniforms to gray. Testifying in Frankfort to persuade lawmakers to increase funding, Bassett said: "The only thing separating law from lawlessness is the thin gray line." And that remains the service's nickname.
When he left the state police in 1969, Bassett had two job offers: John Y. Brown asked him to be president of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Louis Haggin asked him to come to Keeneland (for much less money).
Bassett chose Keeneland, and he began bringing the racing industry into the 20th century.
"Those early days, frequently, I'd look in the mirror and say what am I doing here?" Bassett said. "It was like trying to turn a battleship in a bathtub."
But his efforts paid off: Thoroughbred sales soared and racing became more international, culminating in Queen Elizabeth II's visit to Keeneland in 1984.