01/15/2013 4:06PM

Hovdey: Eclipse Award of Merit puts Nicholson in excellent company

Coady Photography/Keeneland
It was his dozen years running Keeneland that put the seal on a career that earned Nick Nicholson an Eclipse Award of Merit.

Being honored with the Eclipse Award of Merit is a great thing and all that, and Nick Nicholson will be humbled and proud to receive it on Saturday evening at the Eclipse Awards Dinner at Gulfstream Park, adding his name to a heady list of Thoroughbred racing’s most respected leaders.

Still, no matter how many nice things people say or how long the round of applause, the Award of Merit will be the only the second-best thing to happen in the Nicholson household this week.

“My daughter’s expecting her first child today,” Nicholson said on Tuesday from his home in Lexington, Ky. “In fact, I’m told any minute. Every time the phone rings I jump. I think, ‘This’s it, and I’m a grandfather.’ ”

In the interests of such breaking news, the interview was kept short. But then most folks in the business already know Nick Nicholson as either (a) executive director of The Jockey Club, (b) chief operating officer of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, or (c) the president and CEO of Keeneland Association.

[ECLIPSE AWARDS: Watch Saturday's ceremony live on DRF.com]

There’s a chance, however, they may have forgotten about Nicholson’s stretch as a staffer with Wendell Ford, the former Kentucky governor who went on to serve four terms as a U.S. senator, ending his political career in 1999 after eight years as the number-two ranking senator in the majority Democratic party. Nicholson and his wife, Susan, young marrieds at the time, were part of the Washington scene.

“It’s very heady,” Nicholson said. “You’ve got to be careful to keep your feet on the ground. You feel like you have a chance to make a difference and participate in important things. Senator Ford put me in a lot of rooms I wouldn’t have been in for years and years.

“He was a very good senator for horses,” Nicholson noted. “He always made sure that the staff kept up on issues the horse industry cared about. That had a lot to do with my early relationship with people in the industry, because I was his contact in a lot of ways with those issues.

“At one time I thought I might run for Congress,” Nicholson added. “But when our first child was born we made the decision how we wanted to spend our life. That’s when we moved back to Lexington and got involved in the horse business. I learned to like Thoroughbreds a lot more than I liked politicians.”

It was his dozen years running Keeneland that put the seal on a career that earned Nicholson, a Kentucky native, a place alongside Award of Merit recipients Frank E. Kilroe, Howard Battle, D.G. Van Clief, J.B. Faulconer, and Nicholson’s Keeneland predecessor, James “Ted” Bassett – all of them racing executives whose reach and reputation went well beyond their particular job description.

“Keeneland makes you a better person,” Nicholson said. “Just to sit in that chair demands that you do the right thing, that you try hard and show up every day. I worked hard, cared a lot, and tried to make the most of my chances. That’s really enough of an epitaph for me.”

Nicholson is 65, so epitaphs are a tad premature. If nothing else, the Award of Merit gets him back on an even footing with his younger brother John Nicholson, who in 2007 accepted the Eclipse Award of Merit on behalf of the Kentucky Horse Park as its executive director.

“He really hasn’t been holding it over my head, so I’ll have to be careful not to hold it over his,” Nicholson said with a laugh.

Nicholson concedes that Keeneland, with just six weeks of racing a year to go with its huge sales engine, is the exception to just about every rule when it comes to the economics driving racetracks.

“Keeneland is a bubble,” Nicholson said. “A very special bubble. The benefit of the non-profit corporate structure of Keeneland is often underestimated. Not having shareholders or stock prices to worry about allows Keeneland to fulfill its mission to be concerned about what is best for the horse, and for the breed. That’s a wonderful thing.

“Keeneland’s been my home track since I was a boy, and it gets my heart going like no place else,” he went on. “But it’s every bit as special to spend a perfect summer day at Del Mar, or sit in the Santa Anita grandstand and look at those beautiful mountains.

“I always recognized that with those sales come a lot of responsibility for Keeneland to be a leader,” Nicholson added. “People breed and sell their horses in hopes they’ll win races like the Pacific Classic, the Whitney, the Santa Anita Handicap. So the message I would have after all my experience is that we’re all in it together, and that it’s very important for the breed that places like Del Mar, Santa Anita, Saratoga, Belmont, and Churchill Downs do well.”

Nicholson retired from his Keeneland post last September.

“I promised Susan I wouldn’t do anything for a year,” Nicholson said. “Just spend time together, travel, do family and participate in the fun with this baby.”

So for now he will be content to stay on the sidelines, enjoying the sport as a fan while maintaining a profile as a sort of diplomat at large, without particular portfolio.

“I’m sure there are smarter people than me out there to do the job, but I’m not sure there are people any more passionate about the business than I am,” Nicholson said. “I leave more convinced than ever that the way of life around Thoroughbred racing is a good way to spend that life, and I feel very, very privileged to have had a front-row seat. It’s a way of life worth fighting for.”