One of the most important players in Kentucky’s horse industry stepped out of his leadership position and into retirement a few days ago.
After nearly 13 years in the job, Nick Nicholson retired as president of Keeneland on Sept. 1 – his 65th birthday. Moving up to take on Nicholson’s duties at one of the most important institutions in the horse industry in Kentucky and the United States is Bill Thomason, who had most recently served as the track’s vice president and chief financial officer.
The highly-regarded Thomason takes the reins at one of the most important times of the year for both Keeneland and Kentucky’s horse industry. The track’s September Yearling Sale, its highest-profile sale since its famed July Sale went on hiatus a few years back, is set for Sept. 10-21.
Given the current state of Kentucky racing and the ever-increasing challenges the industry faces, Thomason is in for interesting times. But the future cannot be much more intriguing than the landscape Keeneland traversed during the Nicholson years.
He moved into the top spot at Keeneland in 1989 upon the retirement of Bill Greely. What followed has been a roller-coaster ride for Nicholson of economic slowdowns, the annual – and still-unsuccessful – push for expanded gambling at Kentucky racetracks, the crisis of Mare Reproductive Loss syndrome in 1992 that affected breeding crops and sales for years, and a national soul-searching by tracks on safety and medications issues.
The Lexington track even took the plunge and replaced its dirt surface that had become a subject of annual criticism with a synthetic Polytrack course. Keeneland liked Polytrack so much that it became the U.S. seller of the product created by a British-based distributor. That partnership was dissolved late last year.
While Nicholson’s voice was prominent in the discussion of those “big picture” concerns for Kentucky’s horse industry, he also led Keeneland through significant changes in the way it operated its racing and simulcast business.
One of the most startling changes came just before his arrival as president when Kurt Becker became the first and only announcer in the history of the Lexington track that has long referred to its product as “racing as it was meant to be.”
Keeneland celebrated its 75th anniversary season in 2011. Nicholson led the track through that milestone and, from this viewpoint, more than a decade of fundamental change in the racing end of its two-pronged business. Prior to his arrival, Keeneland racing consisted of a pair of boutique 16-day racing meets with positions on the calendar that helped boost their status as social events as well as a stage for must-see racing competition.
Along with their justified reputation for presenting top-notch racing, the Keeneland meets had also been ultra-effective marketing tools for its sales operation. Portions of the sales proceeds have long boosted purses at those marquee meets and capital improvements at the track…
Recent economic conditions and uncertain sales conditions contributed to significant changes in Keeneland racing on Nicholson’s watch. It has placed greater emphasis on dining and entertainment options at the track, enhanced its schedule of special events and giveaways, and even added a program for young fans similar to Junior Jockey Club that has been in place for years at Churchill Downs.
Economic changes, within the industry and beyond, have forced Keeneland to operate much more like its fellow racetracks. For a large chunk of its recent history, Keeneland was primarily a sales operation that also conducted live racing, but now that racing operation stands increasingly on its own.
Nicholson gracefully guided Keeneland through that transition while, at the same time, he and the Central Kentucky institution increased both its activity and visibility in the state’s political realm. Few could dispute that Keeneland was late to the dance on the promotion of additional gaming at Kentucky tracks, as was much of Kentucky’s breeding industry. Nicholson had politics in his background, and the skills gained during that work were important in dealings with both lawmakers and fellow tracks.
In addition, he has a strong record of service to the industry. He worked as executive director of The Jockey Club prior to his arrival at Keeneland, and held several horse industry leadership positions during his baker’s dozen of years since.
Nicholson guided Keeneland through some of its most crucial years and important changes. The future of its racing and sales operations – especially the racing segment – will owe much to what happened during his years in the president’s office.
The great Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham once said that one should “never say anything bad about a horse until he’s been dead at least 10 years.
“They’ll make a fool out of you,” said the Bald Eagle.
So you’ll see no attempt here to assess or judge Nicholson’s term as president of this Bluegrass institution. Historians will eventually attempt that task (though some bloggers might give it a try sooner).
What is appropriate is to wish the very best Nick Nicholson, a good man and a friend, and to congratulate and thank him for the passion, energy and creative spirit that were hallmarks of Keeneland run.
There’s no tonic for a Thoroughbred like a spacious paddock, some lush grass and the absence of a training schedule following a run of demanding races. Here’s a hope that Nick gets the opportunity to simply “be a horse” for a while – but not for too long.
Much work lies ahead for Kentucky’s horse industry, and Nicholson is far too young, experienced and talented for an extended stretch on the farm.