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Q&A: Nick Nicholson
President and chief executive officer of Keeneland, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary and whose fall meet opened Friday
Birthdate: Sept. 1, 1947, in Chicago
Family: wife, Susan; daughter, Trish; son, Nick Jr.
Got into racing because. . . I grew up in central Kentucky, so it’s hard not to be interested in racing when you grow up around here. I was just interested as a fan. I got involved in racing while working in state government and then in Washington, D.C., on Capitol Hill. I helped on horse issues in both state government and in Washington and met a lot of the people who were involved in various organizations or committees when they had a problem. In 1980, they asked me to come back from Washington to head up the Kentucky Owners and Breeders’ Association. Then I worked for 10 years at The Jockey Club. And then I went to work for Keeneland in 2000.
This is the 75th anniversary of Keeneland. What does the brand Keeneland mean to racing? When we began working on the 75th anniversary, I thought it would be on how much Keeneland has changed. But with more perspective, Keeneland at its core has not changed a bit. It stands for conducting racing of the highest quality possible. Keeneland wants to showcase the sport in the best facility, with the best ambiance, and it’s been that way from the 1930s all the way to today. It’s a real showcase for the industry. The only reason Keeneland exists is for showcasing the sport and the protection of the Thoroughbred industry. We are managed and run as a nonprofit. We have an industry mission and a community mission. Part of the success is the involvement in the community, and then the community supports Keeneland. It’s a great two-way street.
Do you feel like you are the keeper of the track’s legacy? I’m not the sole keeper, but yes. The officers, trustees, board − Keeneland is blessed with people who have a lot of loyalty to it, and they understand it. An important part of the job is keeping that legacy alive and growing. But Keeneland invokes a feeling of ownership with virtually everyone in central Kentucky. Whether I’m going to church or a restaurant, people express strong, passionate feelings about Keeneland. Everyone feels like they have piece of Keeneland.
What special events are you doing at the track this season? The racing should be top caliber as usual. Keeneland’s actual anniversary is Oct. 15. We looked back at the feature race that day, and we’re going to run a race with the conditions from that day − 2-year-old fillies going six furlongs. And in keeping our ties with the community, we’re doing an event with the Boston Pops on Oct. 15 at Rupp Arena. The theme is music of the horse. It will go to an endowment for the University of Kentucky symphony orchestra to travel to small towns across Kentucky and expose small towns to the beauty of the symphony orchestra and expose student musicians as role models. That’s quintessential Keeneland − having fun and doing good at the same time.
You are airing a number of your major races this meet on NBC and Versus. How did that come about? We thought NBC Sports did a great job at Saratoga. We are particularly proud that Tom Hammond and much of the crew is locally based. We approached NBC as the Saratoga programs were beginning to be planned, and the conversations went well. They were very happy with how things unfolded there and wanted to do more of this. We were willing participants, and they were, too. It’s got to help the sport. This is Keeneland fulfilling its mission. We wanted people to see quality Thoroughbred racing.
In recent years, you modernized much of the plant, redid the sales pavilion, and put in a synthetic surface. All those things have a common thread – the architecture is consistent with our historic look and the rural ambiance of Keeneland, while at the same time it is enhancing the experience from the point of view of the patron. We wanted to improve the experience and improve the look. A good example would be the tote board. If you look at it, there’s no mistaking it’s Keeneland, with the stone look, but it has modern digital technology. We’re also proud of Trakus, whose data lets fans have an enhanced experience watching the races.
Are you encouraged by the business done at the recent Keeneland September yearling sales? The yearling sales were a bit of good news for the industry, a reminder that if you look at racing and breeding as a single sport, it has appeal to people all over the world. The problems with the economy and the problems inside of racing have created difficulties in the sales marketplace, but I thought the September sales showed we are still a strong industry and have appeal. We should redouble our efforts to make improvements that racing needs to make the sport better. We do have problems, there’s no denying that, but I think sometimes we are hard on ourselves. We beat ourselves up over the problems, but we forget this is a great lifestyle. Thoroughbreds are a great enhancement to people’s lives. And we were reminded in September that, like all great works of art and great beauty, they have value. There was a vibrancy that hadn’t been there since 2007, since the downturn in the economy. We needed a shot in the arm. I hope we can continue the momentum.
From the standpoint of a racetrack operator, how satisfied are you with the performance, and reaction from horsemen, of the Polytrack surface at Keeneland? The Keeneland racetrack is the safest it’s ever been, and it has been a very consistent track the last few years. I think as time unfurls, as we go forward in history, I think it will show itself a very fair track where you can win from all over. It has broad appeal – different types of horses like to run on it. The biggest breakthrough will be the way it handles moisture. Vertical drainage is much better than horizontal drainage. We have had torrential downpours and have raced with consistency. Vertical drainage will be a permanent part of racing.
In fairness, the California mandate set back the laboratory of improved racing surfaces. It was well intentioned. They meant to do well. But there are some things government should not cram down the throats of the private sector. For these things to work, everyone must be on the same page. I regret what happened in California.
The success I’m proudest of is the safety numbers. People in the industry are concerned about the future, how to grow the sport and appeal to younger people. There are threshold issues with non-racing fans to make them racing fans. There are two things we have to do. There has to be a system of integrity; the sport has to be clean. And it has to be safe. New fans have to know, we have to convince them, that we are protecting our athletes, human and equine. If we are not committed, when we have these horrible accidents, they will reject us with a passion if they are not convinced we are doing everything we can to look out for safety. And racing surfaces are an important part. I’m not saying every track needs to be like Keeneland. But we have to have safety.
Keeneland also is a business partner with Polytrack. Looking at it from that standpoint, what do you think is the future of synthetic surfaces in the United States? We’ve been involved less and less from a business standpoint. We’re virtually not involved anymore. We got involved because we felt like the industry needed to experiment with alternatives that were improved surfaces to race on. I think that’s been accomplished. As that got accomplished, we were less and less involved, and we will continue to be less and less involved. I was saying that before we were a business partner, and I will say it after. It’s what we believe.
Future ambitions? This will be my last job, I’m sure of that. It’s been such an honor to work with the teams that I’ve worked with. I’d like to spend time on the integrity and safety issues, and I’d like to spend time on securing new investors in the sport, owners and breeders. Coming out of the September sales, I’m recharged about that aspect of the business. The freshness and enthusiasm of new owners can help from an investment standpoint, and they are accomplished at other aspects of life. They can look at things with a fresh perspective. They’re intelligent people who have been successful in other areas of business. Frequently, those fresh eyes are helpful to us. They bring intelligence and business acumen to the sport. Keeneland wants to help by using the facility to introduce the sport to new investors.