EDS NOTE: This is the fifth article in a weekly, multi-part series retelling some of Don Wright’s history in Greenville as he remembers it.
In case you’re getting bored, this will be my last being in the right place, at the right time.
I was driving south on U.S. Route 127 when I came up on a new Cadillac that had just ran off the road into a deep ditch. The car had a Kentucky license plate and the driver was skunk drunk. As any good Kentucky hillbilly would, I got him out of the car and fled the scene before the law arrived.
I took him to Jim Stinley’s motel on Third Street. Jim helped me get him into a room and to bed, then I had his car towed to Hittle Cadillac. The next morning, early, I went to the motel to check on him. He and Jim were drinking coffee. He introduced himself as Warner Jones and he said he lived in Kentucky. He said he had been to his summer home in Michigan to celebrate his twin daughters’ 15th birthday.
After a trip to Hittle’s, where he was told it would take a few days to get the parts to fix his car, he asked if I could drive him to Kentucky. I was curious about him, and I was beginning to like his style, so I agreed to do that.
Jones turned out to be the owner of Hermitage Thoroughbred Race Horse Farm. He had bred Dark Star that won the Kentucky Derby. He sold a yearling colt for $9 million, a record at that time. He was president of Churchill Downs. His wife’s family owned the Phoenix Hotel in Lexington (this was absolutely the most famous hotel in Kentucky at that time).
His home was like something from “Gone With the Wind.” We arrived mid-afternoon. He said he didn’t want to stop on the way; we would eat at his house. In his office were hot plates with food that were changed two times a day in case he came home.
After lunch we went to get a black man, who he introduced as snowball, that was to come back to Greenville and bring his car home. I laughed all the way home as Snowball told me Warner Jones stories. He started telling me the stories at the front gate to the farm.
He said Warner’s mother was upset because he was spending too much time at the bar that used to be across the road from the gate. She bought the bar and burned it down.
Two years later I was in Lexington and went to the races at Keenland. As I was walking along I spotted Warner’s box seat. It was empty so I climbed over the chains and sat down. He showed up and grabbed me in a bear hug.
“I can’t remember your name, but I sure know who you are,” he said. “I’ve only been drunk maybe five times in my life. That was one of them.”
Two or maybe three years later at 3 a.m. my phone rang. The voice on the other end was an obvious drunk. It was Warner. He had forgotten my name so he called the Greenville police and described me. They had no trouble giving him my name and phone number. He was going to go to Michigan and wanted to stop by and see me.
By this time I owned the Office Bar. He didn’t want anyone except Stinley and me to know who he was, so we introduced him to people as Bob Warner.
He loved the Office Bar. One night he was sitting at the bar next to a bank robber just out of prison. Another night a customer down the bar was bragging about his new color TV. The guy sitting next to Warner asked him to watch his beer and not let anyone throw it out. He left the bar and was gone only a short time.
“Where did you go?” Warner asked the man when he returned.
“I went down to that dumb ***** home, kicked his door in, and stole his TV. That will teach him to brag,” said the man.
Warner loved to tell that story.
For several years Warner would stop by Greenville at least once. When some people asked him what he did for a living, he told them he sold condoms to drug stores. After the word got out, people were hassling him for samples. The next time he came, he stopped at a drug store and bought four gross boxes of condoms. He put them in the go-go-cage. Women were filling their purses. I would guess Darke County’s population didn’t show much growth for some time.
During these years, I would often get huge boxes of the Blood Horse magazine shipped to me. I would go to River Downs in Cincinnati and Latonia (now Turfway Park) in Covington, Kentucky to meet Warner at the race track. I read the magazines and spent untold hours studying pedigrees. I paid attention as he described the pitfalls of owning race horses.
In the late 1990’s, Warner got cancer and died. For several years before that he had stopped drinking and wasn’t nearly as much fun as before. During those years I didn’t see him as often.
In 2000, I decided I wanted to race Thoroughbreds horses. I was bored stiff. I was too cheap to go to the Keenland sale in Lexington and pay $250,000 for a yearling prospect. I decided to breed my own. This will most likely be Wright Enterprises’ last dance. Dwight Arnold, my friend from clear back in the 50’s helped me buy my first mares. Dwight was a Quarter horse trainer at the time.
In the last 15 years I’ve had some good horses, but never a great horse. It costs $55 a day to keep a race horse at the track plus shoeing, vet bills, etc. This has turned out to be the toughest business venture I’ve ever taken to win financially. As of now, I’m still in the red. I love the race track and I love the action; there is no doubt in my mind that I will beat the system eventually. I have plenty of time. After all I’m only 82 years old.
In the summer of 1979, Dick Breaden was riding around Ohio and Indiana with a man he introduced as a golf buddy. He was really an efficiency expert and business analyst from a company in Indianapolis. They had a different way of doing things. They worked undercover to get the information they needed to make their recommendation to the President or CEO of a company. Then, after they were gone and forgotten, their recommendations came from the President or CEO and he got all the credit.
Dick really pushed me to use these people. Two thousand dollars for five days work. I really had trouble with the cost, but I had never gotten bad advice from Breaden.
I called the people in Indianapolis and explained what my business was. They sent me a man named Frank. On Monday morning, he showed up wearing blue jeans, tennis shoes, a U.K. baseball cap, talking in a slow hillbilly dialect. He announced he was my cousin from Kentucky and this was his first job as a hillbilly.
For five days he rode with me. Every time we went into a bar, while I counted the money and took care of business, he looked the place over. When we left, he made notes of what he had observed. In between stops he had a tape recorder and we talked about all facets of my business.
The idea was he would tell me what he saw wrong with each place and later I would gently mention these things to the owner. If they made more money, then I made more money and got credit for the idea.
I want to give one example of a real success. There was a bar in Sidney that had a kitchen that was always filthy. Everyone knew it and they sold almost no food. It was Ohio law that to have a liquor license you had to serve food. The minimum was two hot sandwiches and two hot soups.
After Frank was gone a couple of weeks, I said to the owner, “I was in a bar just like yours down in southern Ohio last week. He told me he had closed his kitchen and tore out the wall, put in an extra bar and extra booth. He said there was a company that sold microwave sandwiches and soup that would put in the machine for free if you bought from them. He really saw an increase in his business.”
When I showed up the next week the wall was torn out and carpenters were hard at work. The end result was a 15-stool bar and booths that held 20 people. As a bonus, he had room for a postage stamp size dance floor. The jukebox alone in that bar took in over $200 a week and over time paid for my efficiency expert.