August 29, 2006

Your Weekly Reeder : Blood and ashes stain our bluegrass

Horror becomes personal when it hits close to home, especially when home isn’t a very big place. Here in Kentucky, our tragedies are almost a family thing. At the least, many of us know somebody who knew somebody who was on Comair Flight 5191 when it took off at 6:07 a.m. Sunday from Lexington’s Blue Grass Field.

Like many flights from the so-called “satellite” airports around the South, the flight was bound for Atlanta, where most of the passengers were scheduled to change planes for somewhere else. For example, Dan Mallory, owner of Meadow Haven Farm, was on his way to a horse sale in Texas.

At one time or another, everybody who’s anybody in the thoroughbred business has been through Blue Grass Field. Big-time jockeys fly in there for the big stakes races at Keeneland, then head back to New York or Los Angeles on the last flight of the day or the first one in the morning.

Back in the 1970s and ’80s, when the Arab oil sheiks from Dubai were dominating the Keeneland yearling sales, they would land at Blue Grass Field and park their private 727 where it was clearly visible to everyone entering the track just across U.S. 60, which divides the airport and the track.
It was almost as if they were trying to send a message to their rival buyers: “We’re here and we’re going to buy anything we want.” The plane’s parking place was just off the runway where flight 5191 took off.

The last time I flew out of Blue Grass Field, I was with a group put together by William T. Young, the noted businessman, thoroughbred owner and philanthropist. We were on his private jet bound for Saratoga, N.Y., where we were going to watch the debut of a colt that Mr. Young had named after my pet cat.

“Billy’s de-ceased cat,” as Mr. Young put it.
We probably took off on the same runway that was the launching spot for Flight 5191. That was the shorter of the two runways at Blue Grass Field, according to news reports, and was usually used for small, private planes, not commercial ones.

Flight 5191 crashed and burned in a copse of trees just across U.S. 60 from Rice Road, where I always turn when I’m going to either the Thoroughbred Club of America’s headquarters up on the hill or to Keeneland through the back way.

In a flash, our storied bluegrass turned red with blood and black with ashes.
Of the 50 people aboard, 49 died at the site. The victims included George Brunacini, who owned the Bona Terra Farm near Georgetown, Ky. He was the breeder of Flower Alley, who had won the prestigious Travers Stakes at Saratoga almost exactly a year earlier.

Much of my history with Blue Grass Field involves racing and other sports.
The very first time I rode on an airplane, I took off from there. It was in the winter of 1965, and I was accompanying the Eastern Kentucky University basketball team on a trip to the Motor City Classic in Detroit.

As I recall, we rode a DC-3, a propeller plane that was reputed to be one of the safest ever made. I was sitting next to a young announcer, Ralph Hacker, who tried to loosen me up by cracking jokes. He did not succeed.

I greeted UK’s 1966 basketball team, the famed “Rupp’s Runts,” at Blue Grass Field the morning after they had lost to Texas Western in the NCAA championship. It was fun to fly with Coach Adolph Rupp, who always told the pilot, “Kick ’er, Doc,” as soon as he had taken his seat.

I was on the plane with the 1978 Wildcat basketball team when it arrived at Blue Grass Field only hours after defeating Duke for the NCAA title. I remember looking out the window and seeing a line of cars stretching from the terminal out to U.S. 60.

From 1997 through 2001, I’m sure Jon Hooker frequently flew out of Blue Grass Field during his career as the closer for UK’s baseball team. On Sunday morning, he and his bride, Scarlett Parsley, who had been married only hours earlier, boarded Flight 5191 on the first leg of their honeymoon trip to California.

Horror sneaked into horse country on a sultry summer morning we will not soon forget. It is a personal thing, and it will stay with us much longer than it will take the stains of blood and soot to be washed from our beloved bluegrass.

Contact the writer at
billyr@leoweekly.com