LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — John Asher’s devotion to the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs and horse racing were obvious anytime he was asked about those subjects, often weaving them together in entertaining tales.
Asher, the longtime Churchill Downs spokesman and executive known for his love of horse racing and his encyclopedic knowledge of the sport’s most famous race, the Kentucky Derby, died Monday. He was 62.
Asher, who was an award-winning radio journalist before becoming a widely respected fixture at the Louisville racetrack, died after having a heart attack while on vacation with his family in Florida, Churchill Downs said in a release.
His death comes a couple of weeks before the storied track opens its September meet. Churchill will host the season-ending Breeders’ Cup World Championships in November.
The track called Asher “an irreplaceable ambassador” in confirming his death.
“John Asher was the soul of Churchill Downs,” track president Kevin Flanery said at a news conference. “That’s what he was. He was the guy whispering in your ear, whether he was in the room or not, telling you to do the right thing for racing, telling you to do the right thing for the history of the Kentucky Derby.
“As the president of the track I was always asked what it’s like to work for John Asher. It was the greatest honor of my life.”
Flanery cited Asher’s passion for the Derby, horse racing in general, music, Western Kentucky University and especially his family, calling it “genuine and infectious.” The track president added that Churchill Downs’ iconic Twin Spires would be lit in Hilltopper red (WKU’s color) on Monday night to honor Asher.
Asher and his wife, Dee, were vacationing in Orlando, Florida, at the time of his death, Asher’s brother, Tim Asher, told the Courier Journal.
“Dee said he wasn’t feeling well . and John said, ‘I think I need to go to the hospital,'” Tim Asher told the Louisville newspaper. “They called an ambulance, and he died on the way to the hospital.”
As word of Asher’s death spread throughout the thoroughbred racing world, two-time Triple Crown winner and five-time Derby winner Bob Baffert referred to him as “the warm, human face” of Churchill Downs.
“I was always happy to see him,” Baffert wrote. “He was as Kentucky as the Derby and the bluegrass, bourbon and hot browns, and I can’t imagine Derby week without him.”
Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said: “Over the past 20 years, no single person was more closely associated with the Kentucky Derby than John Asher.”
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer described Asher’s death as heartbreaking.
“The world knows John Asher as the voice of thoroughbred racing and its #1 fan – and he was the best,” Fischer said in a tweet. “I also know him as a strong community leader fighting for those who have little. I will so miss his presence at @ChurchillDowns and the streets and boardrooms of Louisville where his total humanity shone like a brilliant first Saturday in May.”
A few blocks away at the University of Louisville’s Cardinal Stadium, athletics spokesman Kenny Klein remarked, “We lost a good friend” before leading a moment of silence for Asher with assembled media. Cardinals football coach Bobby Petrino opened his news conference by expressing condolences for Asher’s family and adding, “Everybody here obviously knows him as a great guy, a great man. He’s really missed.”
Breeders’ Cup Limited said in a statement, “John’s devotion to his work, complemented by his broad smile and unbridled enthusiasm for the sport that he loved so much made him a genuine giant in our game and a remarkable ambassador for horse racing.”
Asher was at ease in promoting Churchill Downs and its most famous race as the world’s attention turned each spring to the Derby.
With his booming baritone voice and deep knowledge of horse racing, Asher presided as emcee for the pre-race draw that determined each Derby horse’s starting position and over post-Derby news conferences featuring the winning trainer, owners, and jockey.
Asher joined Churchill Downs in January 1997 and had served as the track’s vice president of racing communications since March 1999. Before that he worked at a couple of Louisville radio stations, including WHAS-AM, and won five Eclipse Awards for his reports on horse racing.
Asher was a native of Leitchfield, Kentucky. He graduated from WKU, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism.
He is survived by his wife and daughters Heather, Erin and Emma, and grandsons Cameron and Caden.
Flanery said the track would await word from Asher’s family on arrangements and a memorial.
“We will honor John because John honored us for decades,” he said.