The Kentucky Horse Park Commission has hired as its interim executive director Ted Nicholson, who filed a whistle-blower lawsuit after being fired without explanation in 2012 from his job as general manager of the KFC Yum Center in Louisville.
Longtime director John Nicholson is retiring in April, and Ted Nicholson will take the helm in May. The two men are not related.
"With his success at operating multimillion-dollar equine and entertainment facilities at various locations throughout the country, we believe that Ted is the right person to serve as interim director," said Alston Kerr, chairwoman of the Kentucky Horse Park Commission.
Ted Nicholson, 53, now is a partner with the Racing Resource Group, a horse racing consulting firm in Louisville.
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Horse Park officials said a firm is expected to begin a nationwide search for a permanent executive director within 30 days. They hope to name a permanent director in six months.
In a phone interview, Nicholson said he would seek the permanent job.
"I'm very excited, very excited for the opportunity to go in and have some fun and make some new friends and hopefully do some things there that will enhance that great jewel," Nicholson said. "It's such a great jewel for the state. It needs a little revitalization, and I'm hoping to be the guy to do that."
In 2012, Nicholson was general manager of the Yum Center when then-Kentucky State Fair Board CEO and president Harold Workman fired Nicholson without giving a reason. Gov. Steve Beshear weighed in during the resulting hubbub, calling the firing an "unfortunate and ill-timed personnel action" that happened shortly before the Yum Center hosted a portion of the NCAA basketball tournament.
Nicholson later filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against the State Fair Board, alleging that Workman had hired his friends and effectively blocked good financial management of the center, and that he had retaliated against Nicholson for telling the truth to auditors.
The lawsuit was settled, and Nicholson said Wednesday that he couldn't comment on it. Workman later retired from the fair board.
Jim Host headed the Louisville Arena Authority at that time and said Nicholson got caught in political crossfire at the arena.
"I thought he was outstanding at the arena, and he has a good knowledge of the horse industry," Host said.
Nicholson grew up outside Chicago near Arlington Park, and he later ran that track for Churchill Downs. He also worked at other Churchill-owned tracks, including the Fairgrounds in New Orleans and Calder racetrack in Miami, Fla. Nicholson said he learned about crisis management in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, including the Fairgrounds.
The Kentucky Horse Park is one of the state's most popular state parks, but it has never made a profit and has suffered economic troubles in the past, partly due to the hugely expensive undertaking of the 2010 World Equestrian Games.
The Horse Park is now vying to host the 2018 Games.
"To get the Games again would be such a great score," Nicholson said. "I would love the opportunity to work with that event."