Bill Thomason was on Keeneland's payroll for only a couple of years before he was tapped to become the association's seventh president. But, without realizing it, he had been training for the job for more than three decades.
After finishing degrees in accounting and business at the University of Kentucky, Thomason went to work for the accounting firm Alexander Grant & Co. Soon, he was spending most of his time working for one client: Mill Ridge Farm.
Thomason left the firm in 1980 to become financial and administrative manager at Mill Ridge, where he worked closely for 28 years with owner Alice Chandler, a Thoroughbred industry leader and a daughter of Keeneland founder Hal Price Headley.
"We just really hit it off," Thomason said. "What a great way to get involved in the business, to have a mentor like her. The way that she looked at life and the business, so forward-thinking. The way that she looked at the importance of the horse, which was the priority the farm set for everything we did. The way she thought through things, the way we thought through things together."
Thomason, 56, spent those years racing and consigning horses for sale at Keeneland. But he said it wasn't until he joined the organization as vice president and chief financial officer in 2010 that he realized how similar Chandler's values were to Keeneland's, especially when it came to service in the industry and community.
"I thought I knew Keene land from the outside, but I had no idea until I got in here the pride that everybody takes in this place and the obligation that they feel to this community," he said.
Thomason has caught some lucky breaks since succeeding Nick Nicholson as president on Sept. 1. The Thoroughbred business is bouncing back after several tough years. Average and median prices were up by double-digit percentages during Keeneland's September Yearling Sale. Keeneland says the 3,958 horses catalogued for the November Breeding Stock Sale show high quality.
I caught up with Thomason during the busy break between the September sale and the fall racing meet, which begins Friday. I wanted to hear his thoughts about Keeneland as a community institution, a role he said has changed little since Headley and others built the track 75 years ago during the Great Depression.
The founders' goal was to create one of the world's best race courses, serving the "horse capital of the world" with both quality entertainment and charitable giving.
The Keeneland Foundation has given more than $18 million in direct contributions to local charities over the years, although contributions have been down in recent years. With the economy improving, Thomason wants to do more, including bringing more segments of the community into Keeneland's facilities.
"We've got 1,100 acres of an arboretum here that's open 365 days a year; there are no gates and locks," he said. "It's a place the community feels an ownership in, and we take great pride in that."
Keeneland now hosts several community events, including Picnic with the Pops and more than a dozen annual charity runs and walks. One of the biggest ones yet is planned for March 30, when the Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon comes to Lexington. Thomason hopes to open the Keeneland Entertainment Center and recently restored Keene Mansion to more local groups.
Keeneland has formed a partnership with Greg Ladd of Cross Gate Gallery to host an annual sporting art auction, beginning in the fall of 2013, Thomason said. Keeneland hopes to leverage its auction staff and well-heeled clientele to eventually make it the world's premier auction for equine art.
"We think it's a natural fit for Keeneland," Thomason said. Keeneland's share of the profits will go to charity.
There also is a new Keeneland Library and Museum Foundation, created to accept donated collections and raise money to support and increase public access to the Keeneland Library's vast equine archives. For example, the Daily Racing Form archives are being digitized for easier public access.
"We're finding a lot of unique ways to use our existing plant for the benefit of community groups, to continue to let them touch this place and to be involved with the horse," he said. "We are simply the caretakers of this very special place for the community and the industry. That's how we see our role here."