Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby have impacted the lives of countless people in varied ways through their nearly 138 years of existence.
Conversely, many individuals have left their fingerprints on the historic home of America’s greatest race. Some of those prints are indelible.
That latter thought brings us to Julian Logan “Buck” Wheat, whose death a few days before Christmas at the age of 78 physically ended an association with Churchill Downs and the Derby that had officially spanned more than six decades.
Son of Trainer
He was the son of trainer Logan Wheat, so it’s pretty safe to describe Buck’s connection to Churchill Downs as a lifetime affair that began well before he took his first job at the track as a fresh-faced usher at the age of 16.
Although there was a stretch of his life when Wheat worked for the L & N Railroad, he was always linked to Churchill Downs and Thoroughbred racing.
After his passing, Buck’s three children – daughter Denise Sohm and sons Dennis and Kevin – found a Courier-Journal clipping from his L & N years that included a photo of their father, dressed in suit and tie, grazing a horse on the Churchill Downs backside before heading off to his day in the railroad office.
Racing got him!
When racing grabbed Buck Wheat, it never loosened its embrace. He was a lucky guy, as were those who knew him over the years.
Although virtually every day of his life was connected in some way to Churchill Downs, Wheat’s career blossomed in 1989 when he accepted the post of director of Horsemen’s Relations.
In that role, he was the initial point of contact for owners and trainers who wished to bring their horses to compete in the track’s growing racing and stakes program.
The quality and volume of those horses improved rapidly as the track’s purses surged with wagering at the dawn of the track’s simulcast era.
Churchill Downs, primarily notable for being the home of the Kentucky Derby for many years, rose quickly to become one of racing’s top national players.
He made Friends
Buck Wheat came into contact with a lot of important racing people during those years and many – including Derby-winning trainers Nick Zito, Bob Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas and Carl Nafzger and Derby-winning owners like Mike Pegram – became good friends, as well as business contacts.
But, as anyone who met Buck through the years knows, the endless roster of Buck’s friends was not limited to high-powered racing heroes.
If your path ever crossed his in any fashion, you were added to the endless list of Buck’s friends.
Buck plied his talents in many roles during his 78 years, including a stretch where he tried his hand at training horses.
But chief among Buck’s strengths was an innate ability to make people feel special and to be a friend. That marvelous ability, along with his love of the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs and the horse industry and knowledge gained over his decades in the business, helped Wheat grow into a role that was not formally listed on his job description, but became a central part of his life.
He became a true community and industry ambassador for Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby and, by extension, became an unofficial ambassador for all of Kentucky’s horse industry.
He was unofficially dubbed “The Mayor of the Backside,” and no title could have suited him better.
His backside constituents included not only those who worked in the little city that is located in the stable area during the nine months the track’s barns are open each year.
Buck charmed countless visitors to the track, from VIP’s to one-time visitors, during their visits to the historic grounds.
His work for charities and special events is as important to his legacy as any of the official duties he performed at the track.
His post as director of Horsemen’s Relation had a formal description, but Buck was one of those rare human beings fortunate enough to have a job and a career that morphed to fit him.
The line on his business card that listed his title could have easily read: “He’s Buck!”
During his long life, he achieved single-name recognition. The world knows Michael, Pele, Tiger, Marilyn and Madonna.
But in our region and industry, if someone mentioned either “Buck” or “Buckwheat,” elaboration was rarely necessary.
His contributions to the business he loved were recognized by several awards.
Awards? Yes, sir!
He earned a Dogwood Dominion Award, an award from Dogwood Stable that recognized racing’s “unsung heroes.”
Last spring he was honored at the annual Derby Week charity dinner of Knights of Columbus Bishop Spalding Council No. 2761 with the Dean Eagle Award, which recognized his lifetime achievements in racing.
As you read this, it is approximately 120 days from the 138th Kentucky Derby, which is set for Saturday, May 5.
At this point, it is difficult to imagine a spring in Kentucky without Buck’s smile, gentle manner and his annual struggle to pick a Kentucky Derby winner.
Undoubtedly there will be tears, but Derby 2012 will also offer opportunities to celebrate the life of Buck Wheat and his impact on the people and things he loved most.
A lot to love
He loved his family and friends; he revered the Derby, horse racing and Churchill Downs; and held what had been the signature job in his life until the day of his passing.
During his 60 years at Churchill Downs, Buck Wheat became a true part of the fabric of the track and its signature event, and was able to share his joy with the people who mattered most.
The lives of those who knew and loved Buck were better because they knew him.
That’s a pretty good definition of a life well-lived and, in a results-driven business, a finish that is difficult, if not impossible, to beat.