Q&A: Nick Nicholson reflects on career at Keeneland

awincze@herald-leader.comAugust 18, 2012 

Keeneland president Nick Nicholson passed by the walking ring on a sunny day in April. After 13 years guiding the racetrack, Nicholson is retiring Sept. 1, to be replaced by Bill Thomason.

  • First of two parts

    Next Sunday: Nick Nicholson talks about ways to solve some of Thoroughbred racing's most challenging problems.

Many have tried and failed to retire from the Thoroughbred industry. Count trainer Larry Jones, jockey Pat Valenzuela and Keeneland vice president of sales Walt Robertson as a collective Exhibit A.

Nick Nicholson swears he is going to buck that trend Sept. 1 when he steps down after 13 years as president of Keeneland. During his tenure at the helm of one of racing's most revered tracks, Nicholson oversaw Keeneland through such milestones as attendance and wagering records as well as through economic downturns and divisive industry issues.

Offering his insight on some of the sport's more pressing topics was always part of Nicholson's duties. Talking about the impact he himself has had, however, is enough to make him twist uncomfortably in the chair he is about to vacate.

"I'm more comfortable talking about issues or abstract events than I am me," he laughed.

For the last time in his current capacity, Nicholson talked with the Herald-Leader about the transition for himself and incoming president Bill Thomason, the challenges he and his successor face, and why he warns against those counting the Thoroughbred industry out.

Below is the first of a two-part interview.

Question: Now that Sept. 1 is getting closer, what are your emotions?

Answer: There is more serenity than I thought there'd be. I'm very serene these days, very relaxed about it. When I look around at other racing and industry operations, I'm so proud at the level of competence here. It's something I'm very proud of that we're going to do this transition and not one person at Keeneland is going to lose their job. That makes me feel very good. It confirms there were a lot of eyes on all this as we were leading up to this, but the decision makers at Keeneland were comfortable enough with the current team, the current philosophy and the implementation of the mission. So all that, it's like a big stew inside of me, it's all mixing. And I've always really liked working, I've liked my jobs and I've gotten into them deeply, arguably too deeply at the sacrifice of my family frequently. I've missed a lot of my kids' events with traveling, but I've always been the type where I can't do anything half way. Part of the reason I'm so peaceful is I could sit in this chair and coast for two or three or four more years because this team is that good. But I don't have the coast gene in me. I think this is a hard industry to retire from because it's such a good lifestyle, it's one of the reasons the sport attracts good people to do it. But it's time for me to give up this chair. Everybody asks, 'What are you going to do?' and I don't have an answer. I've had several great careers with great teams and learned from each one of them. What I've never been able to do is read a book in the morning. I've had a pretty structured life for 40 years so the idea of not knowing what I'm going to do next week doesn't scare me a bit.

Q: When you think back to when you were on the other end of the transition, is there anything from that time you're applying now to make sure this is seamless?

A: That's exactly what we're doing. Bill and I are spending time every day together. We're doing it very quietly, we're doing it at different times during the day. But the common denominator through the whole thing is the uniqueness of Keeneland, the uniqueness of the mission, the uniqueness of the corporate responsibility, the uniqueness of what we're supposed to mean in the industry. That's exactly what I walked into this job most confident about. The first day I sat in this chair, I'd never worked at a racetrack and never worked at a sales company and looking back on it, I probably should have been more afraid than I was. But I understood the mission, I understood the institution of Keeneland deeply. Of all the breaks I got and all the things that allowed me to do this job, it's that I understood the institution. I didn't really need to know the mechanics of a sales operation, there are 50 people here who know that or I didn't really need to know the mechanics of a racing operation because there are people here who do that. The sole reason for the existence of Keeneland is this industry/community mission. That's what I'm trying to pass on. But it's a big benefit for him, he's been here two years now so he knows a lot of the day-to-day stuff that I had to learn from scratch. He's going to hit the ground running and the team will not miss a beat.

Q: When Bill Greely retired as president, there was a six-month search for a successor. How key was it to you that your successor was in place?

A: It will be good for Keeneland, it will be good for our customers and all of our circle that they know this thing will continue to go in the direction it's going in and it's going to be strong. We're going to continue to be the industry's laboratory, we're going to continue to push the technology envelope to improve the broadcasting, to improve the way the story is told. All the things are going to continue and the team that's going to be doing them are people who are dedicated and knowledgeable and competent and experienced.

Q: You talk about the uniqueness that comes with his position. What are the intangibles Bill has that make him a good fit?

A: He's a very competent CFO but what I've learned is he's a CFO that always remembers the reason you're counting is not the end. The reason you're counting is the means to the end, it's the mission that's important. And you can fulfill the mission if your business is sound and if you're financially strong then you can keep employees and you can fulfill your mission. He gets the fact the accounting function is the means to the end and sometimes that gets lost.

Q: Bill is taking over at a time when this sport is in one of its more challenging climates. What do you think will be his biggest challenge going forward and what are the biggest challenges for the sport in general?

A: If the sole source of your knowledge on the health of Thoroughbred racing consisted of what you saw at Keeneland every day, you could reasonably come to the conclusion that the sport had no serious problems. And yet, we all know that's not the case. We've got some very serious challenges and issues. But meets like Keeneland and Saratoga and what's going on at Del Mar show you that the big races, when presented well, this game and the sport is as relevant and as appealing to the modern sports fan as any sport there is. But you can't lull yourself into looking at what you see at Keeneland and say well this is the way it is everywhere. If you care about the future of racing you can't not care about or deal with the problems. It's a very challenging time for the industry and part of it is big picture. We are a complicated sport. I don't want to speak for Bill, he'll figure it out. But going out, the No. 1 thing I believe is the sport can have a bright future. But the future is going to have to be built on a foundation that involves three or four things we have to work our way through. No. 1 to me is the safety of the horse. If these modern sports fans don't think that we are doing what is best for these horses or that we're abusing these horses or we are allowing horses to race in unsafe conditions, not only are they not going to embrace us, they're going to reject us with passion. On the other hand, I'm convinced that a lot of the growth here has been that this fan base knows and appreciates that we're putting the safety of the horse first. Those places, that have not done that will not and don't deserve to have a good future in our sport. And we should not cover up for them and should not embrace them. Safety of the rider and horse has to come first. Then there are issues like the integrity of the wagering system. There is no reason for us not to do that. Of course the tough one that is so high profile right now are drugs. We're not going to be OK as a sport until we have a drug policy we can be proud of. When we can stand up and say "Here are the medications we're allowing horses to have and we're proud of that. Here is what we have thought through, here is how we are enforcing that rule and here is how we're penalizing people who are breaking that rule." It's almost more important that it be credible than what the end result is. To me, if we don't get safety and drugs right then we're not living up to what our two and four legged friends deserve. We have some things we have to work through as an industry, but there is no reason we can't work through them.

Q: What is the thing you are most proud of and what do you wish you could have accomplished?

A: I'm proud of the overall body of work. I'm leaving here with a lot of inner satisfaction that I've served Keeneland to the best of my ability and I'm proud of that. I can't think of one day that I did something different than another day that there was something tangible, it's more the body of work. And what I'm most disappointed on is since I've been president, it's been an economic roller coaster. Most of what has hurt the industry economically has been outside events, economic events. All of that has impacted this job. The last three years have not been much fun at all, most corporations in America would say that, but it's not because the people here were not working hard. Nobody that works here is responsible for the economic collapse of 2008. All the areas that were under Keeneland's control on a competence level I think have been handled pretty well. It is all the things that were outside of our control that have caused us all problems. I don't really have single things that I'm proud of or single things I regret.

Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com.

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