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Julian 'Buck' Wheat, Churchill Downs' 'Mayor of the Backside', Dies at 78

| Churchill Downs Communications | 12/21/2011 #
  • Buck Wheat in a 2011 Derby Week Photo (John Harralson, Voice-Tribune)

  • Buck Wheat and Churchill Downs Racetrack President Kevin Flanery during Breeders' Cup 2011. (Churchill Downs Photo)

Julian Logan “Buck” Wheat, Churchill Downs’ Director of Horsemen’s Relations long known as the “Mayor of the Backside” at the home of the Kentucky Derby, died Wednesday afternoon of complications from injuries suffered in a Tuesday fall at his home.  Wheat was 78.

The Churchill Downs veteran, whose career at the track in various roles spanned more than 60 years, died at approximately 2:10 p.m. (EST) at University of Louisville Hospital, where he had been treated since he was found unconscious in his home following his Tuesday accident.  Family members said Wheat did not appear to be seriously injured following the mishap, but they became concerned when he could not be contacted later in the day.  He was rushed to the hospital after family members went to Wheat’s home to check on him, but he never regained consciousness.

Wheat apparently suffered serious head injuries in that fall.

Known simply as “Buck” to owners, trainers, jockeys and fans of every type, Wheat was the son of trainer Logan Wheat and launched a formal association with Churchill Downs that would last most of his life when he took a job as an usher at the age of 16 in 1949.  He attempted to follow in his father’s footsteps as a trainer for a few years, but accepted the post of Director of Horsemen’s Relations at Churchill Downs in 1986.   That post – in which Wheat served as the initial contact for owners and trainers who brought their horses to compete at Churchill Downs in the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks and other races throughout the year – became the signature job of his long career.  Despite occasional health concerns in recent years, Wheat held that position at the time of his death.

“We could not begin to name, or even count, all of the people who have worked at Churchill Downs in one capacity or another since our track opened in 1875, but Buck Wheat is part of a very small number who became a true part of the fabric of this institution and the Kentucky Derby,” said Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs Racetrack.  “Buck was a friend to all who had the good fortune to cross his path, and a great ambassador for Churchill Downs, the Derby and the horse industry and his efforts went far beyond his listed duties.  We will forever miss the one and only ‘Mayor of the Backside.’  As a friend and co-worker, Buck Wheat is simply irreplaceable.”

Wheat’s work as Director of Horsemen’s Relations frequently wandered far beyond the formal job description for that post.  Throughout his time at Churchill Downs, Wheat greeted fans and dignitaries from all walks of life on visits to the track’s stable area and served as an unofficial ambassador for the historic track, the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky’s signature horses industry.  His activities included work as a guide on countless tours by groups and individuals through the track’s stable area, and those efforts led Wheat to his unofficial title of “Mayor of the Backside.”  Many of his tours, speaking engagements and other activities benefited charitable organizations and causes.

He was honored several times for his work at Churchill Downs and never-ending charitable activities.  The most recent of those honors came earlier this year during Kentucky Derby Week when Wheat received the “Dean Eagle Award” from Knights of Columbus Bishop Spalding Council No. 2761.  That award, named for the late Courier-Journal sports columnist Dean Eagle, annually honors individuals for their contributions to the Thoroughbred racing industry.  Previous winners of that award include Hall of Fame and Kentucky Derby-winng trainers trainers D. Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert, Nick Zito, Bill Mott, Carl Nafzger, MacKenzie Miller and Woody Stephens; owners Seth Hancock of Claiborne Farm, the late William T. Young and Penny Chenery of Secretariat fame; jockeys Steve Cauthen and Pat Day; and even Secretariat himself, the legendary winner of the 1973 Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown.

In 2001, Dogwood Stable honored Wheat with its “Dogwood Dominion Award,” which annually recognizes “unsung heroes” of the horse industry.  As he handed the award to Wheat, Dogwood Stable’s W. Cothran “Cot” Campbell said, “’Unsung hero’ is Buck Wheat’s middle name.”

Wheat is survived by three children: Denise, Kevin and Dennis; five grandchildren and one great-grandchild; and Barbara Passafiume, his first wife and the mother of his three children.  Among Wheat’s countless friends is his special companion, Debbie Hunt, who shared many joyous moments and special events with Buck and his family and friends in recent years.

Funeral arrangements have not been finalized, but family members say there will be no memorial service until after Christmas holiday.