01/25/2013 2:56PM

Mark Simon: Nicholson gives some sage advice at Eclipse Awards


Every January, the Eclipse Awards ceremony provides a reflective look back at the best of the previous season. For 2012 Special Eclipse Award recipient Nick Nicholson it was an opportunity not only to take stock of a long, distinguished career, but also to dispense some advice well worth heeding.

Nicholson knows this sport far better than most through the many industry roles he has taken on over the years – positions of responsibility, authority, purpose, and philanthropy. So when he stressed in his acceptance speech that we must all band together for the good of racing, everyone should have taken notice. Coming from someone like Nicholson, a diplomatic man in the toughest of times, this was the proverbial slap to the back of the head to racing’s stakeholders.

Nicholson hails from a political background and has held a number of quasi-political positions in racing, starting with his role as executive director of Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders. He was “discovered” by Bluegrass hardboots who plucked him out of Washington, D.C., for that position through his work as aide to Kentucky Sen. Wendell Ford. Nicholson went on to become executive director of The Jockey Club before finishing his professional career as president of the Keeneland Association.

It was this invaluable political experience that enabled him to bring together so many different players within a far-flung, highly fragmented sport, to provide much-needed direction and build hard-to-attain consensus. That talent was never more evident than when the National Thoroughbred Racing Association was being formed back in the 1990’s. Executive director of The Jockey Club at the time, Nicholson was given a leave of absence to focus on pulling together a fragile coalition of racetracks, owners, breeders, and farm and stallion owners – all of whose support, financial and otherwise, would be required in forming a proposed organization to promote racing. Few could have pulled off a feat tantamount to herding cats, but Nicholson was absolutely the right man for the job. In fact he was so good at it, he was named NTRA’s founding chief operating officer, returning to The Jockey Club only after Tim Smith was hired as commissioner and CEO for the nascent organization.

The NTRA began with lofty goals and an annual budget of tens of millions, generated from the many sectors of racing. And initially, it made an impact – the “Go, Baby, Go” ads with actress Lori Petty still resonate as a campaign that worked. But without Nicholson’s firm hand at the helm, and increasingly plagued by provincial infighting, NTRA stumbled . . . eventually deviating altogether from its original mission to aggressively market the sport to the general public.

Today, racing lacks a properly funded national marketing arm to help promote the sport in the face of fierce competition from other forms of gaming, setting it even further behind in the gambling and entertainment spheres. That is not helped in any way when some tracks care little about the horse (or racing itself, for that matter), their eyes only on the bottom line, alternative gaming, or maximizing profits.

From his seat, Nicholson sees an industry that must return to its roots, to care about the horse, to care about all of the stakeholders . . . the owners, the breeders, the consignors, all those who make a living in racing, and yes, to care for the fans.

“I have been fortunate to have formed a wide array of friendships with people involved in all aspects of the sport, from top to bottom,” Nicholson said in his acceptance speech last week. “They all have their own perspectives and very different opinions on what is good for racing.

“Yet, despite these differences, on nights like this we come together as a family to celebrate great champions and outstanding achievements.

“This coming together is only possible because we all share something: And what we share is a love and great passion for Thoroughbred racing.

“This common denominator is much more important and much more relevant than what separates us. And so, as I humbly accept this award, it is my fervent wish for Thoroughbred racing that just as we come together tonight, we can through a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect forge a path that will lead to a bright future for Thoroughbred racing, this great sport that means so much to all of us.”

It was Nicholson’s parting shot to racing, after a life devoted to building bridges and working toward consensus. It was his way of saying that if we want this sport we love to survive and thrive, we had better get our act together, sooner rather than later.