The Gift of “A Brush with Greatness”

Age has its perks, especially at family reunions. Senior attendants are automatic celebrities with stories everyone wants to hear.  Chester Buford Wolfe, a tall and trim 93 year old elder, whose life-long career as a gate-guard at Keenland positioned him to brush shoulders with many great names in thoroughbred racing, was eager to share accounts of his encounters. The setting was a field comprised of Wolfe, Reeves, & Davis descendants, representing four generations, in Georgetown, Kentucky.  “Check”, as he was called during his days at Keenland, could be seen striding between corn-hole boards and goofy-golf games set up on the well-manicured lawn.  According to his great niece, Dee Dee, who sported a whimsical pink T-shirt boasting “I was Raised by Wolfes”, her great Uncle Chet had been seen playing volleyball at previous reunions up until he was 85 years old.  It wasn’t hard to imagine him observing the swimming pool nearby with cannon-ball splashers, possibly thinking about horses being hosed down after workouts or competitions. A buffet table laden with pot-luck contributions, more luxuriant than the fresh hay and buckets of grain special ordered to refresh thoroughbred champions, extended hospitality to guests from inside the vaulted ceiling home of the week long reunion hosts.

Memories “like it was yesterday” prevailed as this vibrant man, who’d been cast in the midst of what is now legends in racing history, shared photos of famous horses whose paths had crossed his own, including:  Bagdad, Tom Rolfe, Riva Ridge, Damascus, Round Table, Drone, and the legendary Secretariat.  “Check’s” most coveted souvenir from these days is a swath of Secretariat’s mane and tail, gathered following a grooming session he’d observed, neatly preserved in a sealed plastic bag.  His now deceased brother, Thurman Wolfe, at one time had “started” or broken horses—the most accomplished of his mounts being the 1957 Kentucky Derby winner, Iron Liege.  Chester’s father-in-law, Harry Maybriar, had built the first paddock for Man O War.  People who had served great race horses seemed, unquestionably, to be a part of Chester Wolfe’s own bloodline.

It was no surprise then that his beloved historian’s movements about the reunion grounds were somehow reminiscent of a horse in retirement ambling from pasture to pond to barn, grazing at his leisure, reveling in the company of his pasture-mates for the day. Every move was efficient and purposeful like a great race horse whose muscle memory added grace and dignity, belying the actual years invested in a mortal body. Before a lavish display of fireworks at sunset and a late night session of blue-tooth-facilitated karaoke with hand-held flashlights serving as spot-lights, “Uncle Chet” could be found holding his own cards, discreetly fanned, among kinfolk bantering in a competitive round of Pinochle.

As a gift to honor a man who loved his life-long occupation and whose ongoing appreciation for Thoroughbreds in racing seemed to be timeless, a signed copy of a recent publication: A Brush with Greatness by artist, Robert Clark and writer, Ed Bowen had been obtained earlier in the day at Keenland’s “Hats Off Day”.  It was like Christmas in July for the appreciative gentleman, who quickly understood the significance of the collection of paintings and memoires about horses and events he had witnessed in his own life-time.

When a “Brush with Greatness” becomes a part of our journey, we are forever changed, elevated to new levels of wonder and expectation—-encouraged to believe again in blessings and miracles, and hope for a brighter future.

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