Updated on 04/18/2012 4:19PM

Keeneland: Nicholson to retire in September

Keeneland/Coady Photography
Nick Nicholson is the sixth president in the 76-year history of Keeneland.

LEXINGTON, Ky. -  Nick Nicholson, the Keeneland president and chief executive who presided over two major renovations at the track and auction house, will retire on Sept. 1, after nearly 13 years at the helm of the not-for-profit company. He will be succeeded by the association's current vice president and chief financial officer, Bill Thomason.

Nicholson, the sixth president in the 76-year history of Keeneland, said on Wednesday afternoon that he decided late last year to announce his retirement this spring because of his confidence in the association's management and employees.

"It's my job to have Keeneland ready to be even better after I leave," said Nicholson, who will be 65 in September. "As we went through the 75th anniversary last year, it just became obvious to me that the team was working together extremely well, and that Bill was ready to do this right now."

A central Kentucky native who was the executive director of the Jockey Club before being hired by Keeneland, Nicholson followed in the footsteps of the presidents that preceded him. During his tenure, he consistently said that Keeneland's single highest priority was the well-being of the horse and the horse industry, and the association rarely strayed publicly from that principle.

Like other Keeneland presidents, Nicholson was a familiar presence in the Keeneland grandstand during its race meets. Even before his resignation was formally announced on Wednesday, Nicholson could be seen shaking hands with two on-duty Lexington police officers at the racetrack entrance, one of whom said to him, unsolicited, "You're leaving?"

Nicholson presided over two major renovations at Keeneland, one to the sales pavilion, and the other to the racetrack. As part of the racetrack renovation, which was completed in fall of 2006, Keeneland replaced its main dirt track with a synthetic surface, a decision that later drew criticism from some handicappers but one that Nicholson defended because of his belief the track would be safer. Though the sample size remains small, far fewer horses have died at the track since the track was installed compared with the same number of meets preceding the installation.

Both renovations were funded when Keeneland was generating record revenue from a booming auction market, but late in 2008, the boom went bust. In 2007, total auction receipts generated at Keeneland sales was $815.4 million; two years later, the total was $396 million.

"Right now, Keeneland is strong financially," Nicholson said. "But it has been a very, very challenging three years. Our revenue was literally cut overnight by 50 percent."

Nicholson credited Thomason with getting Keeneland's finances back in order. Thomason was hired as Keeneland's chief financial officer in 2010 after 28 years as the financial and administrative manager at Mill Ridge Farm, a central Kentucky farm owned by Alice Chandler, the daughter of Keeneland founder Hal Price Headley.

"Had it not been for Bill and his competency in getting our financial priorities and our budgeting in order, Keeneland wouldn't be where it is today," Nicholson said. "He's been spectacular."

Thomason, 56, said that he plans to change little at Keeneland.

"My priorities are going to be exactly the priorities that Keeneland has had for 75 years," Thomason said. "We are going to continue to be innovators, we are going to be very thoughtful about those innovations, and we are always going to put the horse first. I've grown up with that."