Billy Reed: Everybody who met John Asher was better for it

Billy Reed (Source: WAVE 3 News)
Billy Reed (Source: WAVE 3 News)
Updated: Aug. 28, 2018 at 4:29 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn
John Asher died suddenly of a heart attack on Aug. 28, 2018. (Source: WAVE 3 News)
John Asher died suddenly of a heart attack on Aug. 28, 2018. (Source: WAVE 3 News)

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Before he became Mr. Kentucky Derby, John Asher was a radio guy. When I met him in the early 1980s, he was working either for WAVE or WHAS. Like everyone else did, I liked him immediately. He was polite, respectful, smart, enthusiastic and talented.

John had a passion for the Derby that traced back to his childhood days in western Kentucky, so he made it a point to get to know those of us who had covered the great race for many years. He picked the brains of Mike Barry, Jim Bolus, me and others. But it always was a joy to talk with him because he cared so much.

When Churchill Downs offered him a public-relations job, I remember discussing it with him. He was really torn because he loved WHAS and the radio business. But he also knew he was facing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at Churchill.

Of course, he became far more than a PR man. He became the face of the Derby, its most ardent advocate since Col. Matt Winn was promoting it from a modest Midwestern stakes race into a classic American sporting event during his tenure as track president from 1903-1949.

He was only 62 when he died of an apparent heart attack Monday while on vacation with his family at Disney World. He had so much more to offer. He leaves a void that's impossible to fill because his zest for the Derby was unique.

So far as I know, John had five passions in his life: his family, his Catholic faith, the Derby, Western Kentucky University, and music, and he balanced them about as well as anybody I've ever known. I'm sure he would want to be remembered mainly as a good husband and father. He was the sort of guy you wanted for a next-door neighbor.

I think his experience in radio helped John become such a successful spokesman for the Derby and Churchill Downs. Having been one of us, he understood that we were mainly a bunch of working stiffs just trying to do a job.

So even in times of controversy, he never saw the media as his enemy. He fully represented the interests of his employer, but he also understood the mindset of the media. And since people on both sides trusted him, he was able to meet his obligations to both without rancor.

He promoted the Derby every chance he got, whether it was writing a column for The Voice-Tribune of St. Matthews or talking to a civic club. He took on so much responsibility, in fact, that he finally had to begin delegating some of it to people like Darren Rogers, who has handled the Derby media for the last several years.

He also was a great PR man for Western Kentucky, his alma mater, pushing his Louisville media friends to notice all the great things being done in athletics on the Hill in Bowling Green. I remember how excited he was when the Hilltoppers defeated the University of Kentucky in football. But he didn't rub it in on his Big Blue buddies, because that wasn't his style.

The horsemen on the backstretch loved him because they knew how much he loved them. He made it a point to know all the Derby owners, trainers, and jockeys, and he did what he could to make them want to come back to the Derby every time they had a good horse.

One of his favorites was trainer D. Wayne Lukas. When I interviewed Wayne for my "Conversations with Champions" series at UofL in 2015, John was there not only to respect Wayne, but to see if I would extract any new nuggets of Derby history from him.

Like many of us, John struggled with his weight. He went up and down regularly, but he never gave up the fight. When I last saw him about eight days ago at St. Frances of Rome, where he sometimes went to Mass, he was thin, but he also looked unhappy and sallow. I made a mental note to ask about his health the next time we communicated.

And now there will be no next time, at least in this life.

Everybody who ever met John was better for knowing him. He was one of the good guys in a sport that's had its share of villains. He never took himself too seriously or tried to play the role of big shot, even after he became "Mr. Kentucky Derby."

I have no idea what Churchill or the industry will do to honor his memory, but they certainly should do something because he was that special.

All I know is that when "My Old Kentucky Home" is played before next year's Derby, everyone who knew him will have something new about which to weep.

And to smile. Don't forget that. The Derby brought so much sunshine into John's life that I'm sure he would want us to smile through the tears.