CRAWFORD | 'A magical thing,' previously unknown photo of Ali br - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | 'A magical thing,' previously unknown photo of Ali brings joy at Churchill Downs

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Then-Cassius Clay running on the track at Churchill Downs, 1963. (Photo via CNN by Curt Gunther, from Steve Gunther) Then-Cassius Clay running on the track at Churchill Downs, 1963. (Photo via CNN by Curt Gunther, from Steve Gunther)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — For years, John Asher has known about a rumored training session that Muhammad Ali had at Churchill Downs, but he never could find any evidence of it.

Years ago, during an awards ceremony, Asher even asked Ali if the whole thing really happened, and Ali remembered that yes, it had.

Asher, Churchill's vice president for racing communications, had searched for any photograph that might show Ali at Churchill that day. As perhaps the two most important icons in Louisville, it would have been a nice photo to have. But he never had any luck. He took to calling it the “holy grail.”

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So he couldn’t believe his eyes when assistant Jefferson County Attorney Paul Rutherford sent him a Tweet this morning with a link to a CNN story which included a photo of Muhammad Ali, running on the stretch at Churchill Downs, beneath the fabled Twin Spires.

Asher called it “the Greatest meets the Greatest Two Minutes.”

The photo came to CNN from the son of sports photographer Curt Gunther, who was at Ali’s side for decades snapping photos. The CNN story with Gunther’s fantastic candid photos of Ali’s early life around Louisville can be seen here.

“You cannot imagine how I felt when I saw that photo,” Asher said. “. . . I always said if I could have one image in the history of Churchill Downs that I’d like to see, it would have been that.”

Asher contacted the son of Curt Gunther, Steve, about the photo. Steve came into possession of the trove of unpublished photos when his father died in 1993. Like his father, Steve is a photographer, and is working on restoring many of the historic images his dad shot.

Asher said he’s hoping to display a large reproduction of the image somewhere in Churchill Downs.

“It’s pretty remarkable,” Asher said. “And we wouldn’t know about it if not for Ali’s passing. I’d still rather have him here, but you talk about a wonderful little sidelight of this difficult time, is that that picture from 1963 just shows up.

“It was at least in the oral history tradition here, and we had written about it in the media guide over the years. For it to just come from out of the blue, it’s a smile out of a sad circumstance. It’s something we’ll treasure here and hope a lot of people get to see it and share it.”

Clearly, it wasn’t  a training run. Ali was wearing street clothes and loafers. Asher speculates that it must have come about through the ownership team that bankrolled Ali in his early pro days — there were some Churchill Downs connections among that group.

But Asher said he was struck when he realized that at the time of the photo — 1963 — the Churchill Downs grandstand likely was still segregated.

“It would have been a difficult thing to get around the racetrack, probably, for him,” Asher said. “I can’t help but think about how he’s moving so freely through the racetrack, but probably would not have have been allowed to move so freely through the stands, the year before the Civil Rights Act.”

Ali made his way back to the Kentucky Derby through the years, and Churchill has plenty of pictures of Ali at the track. But this one, that came out of the blue after so many years, will always be special to Asher.

“Just think about what Muhammad Ali and Churchill Downs have meant to this community,” he said. “. . . This event had been near-legend status for so long. To see that photo show up this morning, you talk about a magical thing. I’ve been smiling all day.”

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