The Greatest Photograph

Muhammad Ali at the 1999 Kentucky Derby. Courtesy of Churchill Downs.

Muhammad Ali at the 1999 Kentucky Derby. Courtesy of Churchill Downs.

As I settled in at my keyboard Monday morning to write this weekly visit with you via The Voice-Tribune, I did so with the goal of offering some thoughts on the sad passing of Muhammad Ali, Louisville’s gift to the world.

In countless speeches and other gatherings in front of groups large and small during my years at Churchill Downs, I have shared stories about the 142-year history of the home of the Kentucky Derby that, in almost every case, included this favorite nugget:

The great Muhammad Ali – then Cassius Clay, and later to be known as Louisville Lip, the Greatest of All Time, boxing’s three-time heavyweight boxing champion and a humanitarian of international impact – toiled in conditioning work early in his career with the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs often as his backdrop. The man who would become the best-known athlete in world history did conditioning runs over the one-mile sandy loam surface over which every renewal of the Derby and Kentucky Oaks have been run since their respective debuts in 1875.

That sandy surface was good for building muscles in the legs, one of the future champion’s most dazzling weapons in the ring.

It was a great story; although, I – nor any of my predecessors in the communications and publicity offices at Churchill Downs – had ever seen physical evidence that it was true. The story was part of our history section in the old Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs media guide, but there were, to our knowledge, no photos of the young legend gliding over his hometown track.

That is, until Monday, just minutes after I sat to gather my thoughts for this piece, a tweet came in from my friend Paul Rutherford (@horsemanlawyer to you Twitter admirers who’d like to give him a follow), himself a lover of Thoroughbred racing and the history – athletic or otherwise – of our city. It contained a brief message, followed by a link.

“Just want to be sure you’d seen this,” the message read.

A click on the link opened a CNN story bearing the headline of “Previously unseen photos show young Muhammad Ali at home.” The story included 10 photos by photographer Curt Gunther, who the story said had chronicled most of Ali’s boxing career via the images captured by his Nikon F camera.

My eyes froze on the sixth image, which in my life and career comes as close to the Holy Grail as most anything I could imagine.

There it was – the image that I and others had created in the mind’s eye but had never seen nor, quite frankly, had any longer hoped to see. From 1963 – the year before he shook the world with an upset victory over champion Sonny Liston to earn his first heavyweight championship and months before the public announcement that he would heretofore be known as Muhammad Ali – was Gunther’s image of a smiling Cassius Clay running up the 1,234 1/2-foot Churchill Downs stretch and past the clubhouse.

Some years back, I had witnessed Ali publicly confirm that he had indeed trained over the track that had been the scene of so many stirring performances by four-legged superstars and their human partners. Karl Schmitt Jr., the executive director of the Louisville Sports Commission who was my predecessor at Churchill Downs (and the guy who hired me to work at the track nearly 20 years ago), told the story about those on-track training runs at a luncheon at which Ali was honored.

Schmitt, who had noted the absence of photographic evidence in his story, turned to The Champ to ask this simple question: “Did it happen?”

“Yes,” replied the Louisville legend.

That was good enough for me and has been since that day.

But things changed Monday. Because of the talented eye of Curt Gunther, I have now seen an image of one of those moments.

In Gunther’s photo, the young Ali is dressed in street clothes, and his footwear is not appropriate for training. One could speculate that the champion-in-waiting and the photographer had discussed his work at Churchill Downs and then traveled to the track for a photo of an unscheduled training run.

As joyful as I was to finally see the image, it also was distressing because of the thought that Louisville’s greatest hometown icon, who ran so freely over the racetrack on that day in 1963, would likely have had a considerably more difficult time if he was to walk through the clubhouse and grandstand on a regular racing day.

The passage and signing of the Civil Rights Act would not occur until 1964, and there was work to be done in our nation and community in the months and years that followed the moment that Gunther captured.

But from a purely personal viewpoint, this heretofore unseen image of Ali is magical.

It depicted a young man who would soon be the self-proclaimed, but then nearly universally-acclaimed, Greatest of All Time at the home of the Greatest Two Minutes in Sports. The moment was neither the first nor the last in which Ali – the Louisville native turned Citizen of the World – would visit his world-famous hometown racetrack.

But prior to Monday, my perception of that and similar moments had been the stuff of legend and imagination. Now, it is a real and tangible thing and frozen in time thanks to Gunther’s lens.

It is a personal dream come true to see that image, which likely would not have surfaced at this point if not for Ali’s passing. But as much as I love the image and the opportunity to finally have a glimpse of that moment, I’d gladly return it to storage to have The Greatest with us a little while longer. VT