Marine Veteran and Thoroughbred Industry Icon Turns 100, Credits Corps with Shaping His Life

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James E. Bassett III serving in Okinawa during World War II.
James E. Bassett III serving in Okinawa during World War II. (Courtesy of Keeneland)

A decorated World War II veteran who rubbed elbows with world leaders and royalty on the way to becoming one of the most respected figures in the global thoroughbred horse industry celebrates his 100th birthday Tuesday.

But for James E. "Ted" Bassett III, the "most meaningful phase" of the past century was not the one in which he ascended to the pinnacle of achievement in business. It was his service as a U.S. Marine.

"It completely changed me, my outlook, attitude and will to succeed," Bassett told Stars and Stripes. "I shall forever be grateful to the Corps for providing me the opportunity to serve."

Bassett was born in Lexington, Ky., on Oct. 26, 1921. He graduated from Yale in the early 1940s, and shortly thereafter he deployed to the Pacific as an infantry officer in the 4th Marine Regiment, 6th Marine Division, where he led a rifle platoon during the Battle of Okinawa.

He was wounded twice but recovered in time to participate in allied forces' initial landing on Japan. He later received the Purple Heart and the Presidential Unit Citation.

Bassett has often attributed the success of his later civilian endeavors to his early military training and combat responsibilities. One of his first civilian posts was director of the Kentucky State Police from 1964 to 1967, at the height of the Civil Rights era.

His efforts at restructuring the force and building trust in the community caught the attention of John Y. Brown, a future Kentucky governor who then owned the fast-food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken.

"I admired what I had heard about him and interviewed him to see if he would be interested to become the president of Kentucky Fried Chicken," Brown said in an interview.

Brown still jokes that Bassett made the wrong decision when he turned down his lucrative offer for a job at a racetrack that paid considerably less.

The job Bassett chose was at Keeneland, an internationally renowned racecourse in Lexington and the thoroughbred industry's leading auction house.

Bassett would go on to serve as president, chairman of the board and trustee at Keeneland over the years, and much of the venue's success has been linked to his leadership, particularly his ability to forge relationships.

"He has got the best human touch of anybody I've ever been around," said Jim Host, whose friendship with Bassett goes back to the late 1960s. "He has no ego. He's the kind of person who can sit comfortably with Queen Elizabeth, or he can be just as comfortable sitting with the cooks, waitresses and waiters in the track kitchen."

Bassett did, in fact, sit with Queen Elizabeth II when she made her first visit to an American track at Keeneland in 1984. She was one of many high-profile visitors Bassett helped attract to the venue. Some years later, the royal family of Dubai made the first ever $10 million bid for a horse there.

Bassett was also a key architect of the Breeders' Cup, an annual series of horse races that began in 1984. In addition, he served as president of the Thoroughbred Racing Association and the Thoroughbred Club of America, cementing his legacy in the horse racing industry.

People still visit Bassett regularly for advice and wisdom; one relative likened these sessions to "an audience with the pope."

Many of the lessons he shares were learned during his time as a Marine, former Lexington Mayor Jim Gray said.

"Ted Bassett is still a shining example of that mission, of the character that it took to carry us through that period and really until today," Gray said.

Those closest to Bassett say his philanthropic legacy in central Kentucky is just as strong as his reputation in the racing world. Bassett has used Keeneland's success to support local charities.

He's also built links between the racecourse and the local Black community.

"There have been numerous things that he's done in a quiet manner but very efficient manner to help bridge the gap between African Americans and the traditionally white horse racing community," Host said.

Bassett has no children, and his wife, Lucy, died in 2016 after more than six decades of marriage.

Holly Wiedemann, Bassett's goddaughter, said he nixed plans for a grandiose party because he considered it inappropriate to celebrate his longevity when so many others are dying of COVID-19.

"I think that speaks volumes to his character," Wiedemann said. "Those who know him will tell you that there is another day of the year more important to him than his birthday: Nov. 10, the Marines' birthday, which he regularly hosts parties for."

On that day in 2007, Bassett was presented with the Navy's Superior Public Service Award, the second-highest civilian honor given by the branch. It recognizes significant contributions by a civilian to the Navy, Marine Corps or entire Department of the Navy.

"Mr. Bassett's selfless patriotism and dedication reflect great credit upon himself and are in keeping with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service," his award citation said. "Throughout his distinguished career as a Marine and as a private citizen, Mr. Bassett continues to epitomize 'once a Marine, always a Marine.' "

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