John Asher: Beloved face and heart of Churchill Downs remembered

Horse racing community reflects on the loss of John Asher
Trying to picture Churchill Downs without John Asher for the Derby and upcoming Breeders' Cup is tough to think about. (Source: WAVE 3 News Archives)
Trying to picture Churchill Downs without John Asher for the Derby and upcoming Breeders' Cup is tough to think about. (Source: WAVE 3 News Archives)

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - A Louisville legend of horse racing and journalism is also being remembered as a cherished colleague and friend.

John Asher, Churchill Downs Vice President of Racing Communications, passed away Monday morning at the age of 62.

"If there's a Mount Rushmore in racing, John Asher is the media representative. He is the face," Churchill Downs Racetrack President Kevin Flanery said. "He could have titles, we could give him all the titles in the world. He's John Asher."

Asher's life, legacy and love of racing will forever be alive at Churchill Downs and beyond. Monday, an outpouring of love, memories and respect followed the sad news of his death while on vacation with his family in Florida.

The news came as a shock to his co-workers and admirers.

Asher became a great friend to WAVE 3 News during the station's coverage of the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup events.

"The tulips are starting to pop through the ground and the horses are arriving," Asher -- always a storyteller -- said in one news clip talking about the upcoming Derby.

Whether it was the weather, little known facts, Derby history, the controversy over gaming, or even death, in two decades at Churchill Downs, Asher, the track's ultimate ambassador, always had the right words.

"How many eulogies did we hear John do and he always said everything so perfect, whatever the occasion," Jennie Rees, of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said.

Flags at Churchill Downs on Monday were at half-staff to honor the face and heart of the historic track.

"He was so welcoming to everybody," Rees, also a longtime sports writer, said.

Rees and sports journalist Billy Reed first met Asher in the early 1980s, when he was a WAVE and WHAS radio journalist.

What stood out about the Leitchfield native and five time Eclipse Award winner with the incredible voice? His knowledge, memory, love for the sport and most of all, his kindness.

"He was such a passionate fan and there's just so many ways he's going to be missed, but he was just genuinely a really super person and you just don't see people like that," Rees said.

Reed said when Churchill Downs came calling for Asher in 1997, he couldn't believe he would give up radio because he was so good at it, but then again, "the Derby opportunity was a once in a lifetime thing."

From media member to front office, Asher remained fair and true no matter the topic and was respected on every side of the track.

"He loved the trainers and the jockeys and the grooms and everybody on the backstretch," Reed said.

Breeders' Cup Senior Director of Industry Relations, Jill Byrne, who sat next to Asher for years on Churchill Downs Today, said he was a mentor and like family.

"He'd come by in the morning and d rop off the program for the next day and say tomorrow's winners today," she smiled.

Byrne said Asher always seemed to say yes to people so, when he double booked himself around the Derby for interviews and needed help, her answer was also yes.

"He would always end with, 'You are the world's greatest human being, I owe you,'" she recalled. "The next morning there would be a carrot cake muffin on my desk.

"So to John, I say, 'You're the world's greatest human being and I owe him.'"

Trying to picture Churchill without John Asher for the Derby and upcoming Breeders' Cup is tough to think about.

"It's unimaginable," Byrne said. "You just never think the voice, the face -- Mr. Churchill Downs -- is not going to be there."

Rees added: "He really genuinely cared."

Reed said no matter how busy Asher got, he always seemed to find the balance between work and home.

"He was so proud of his wife and children and grandchildren," Reed said. "And you think about people you would like for young people to model themselves after, I would put John very high on that list."

Byrne said Asher's death is not only a loss to all who knew him and to the horse racing industry, but also to the community where he gave his talents and time. She said Asher was always finding items to donate to charity.

She remembered his prized and expensive signed bottle of Pappy Van Winkle on his desk that he cherished, but instead gave to charity for an auction one night.

"Why would you give that up, instead of finding something else you could give?" she asked. He answered, he knew it would raise more money than anything.

I myself served alongside Asher on the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame Nominating Committee for many years. He loved Western Kentucky University and always fought for deserving Hilltopper nominees to get to the Hall of Fame.

Asher also loved music, constantly posting on social media about favorite songs and new albums debuting.

He is survived by his wife Dee, three daughters, and two grandsons.

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