Educators, management gurus, policy wonks, even politicians all spin tales about what didn't work and how the lessons of failure should inform future decisions.
Keeneland presents Lexington with a different challenge as we celebrate its 75th anniversary this month.
What can we learn from its success?
When a group of Lexington Thoroughbred breeders began to think about building a racetrack, it was hardly a given that was such a good idea.
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While Lexington was at the center of a prosperous breeding industry, the Thoroughbred track downtown had failed. Equine sales were not a factor as breeders here had long been used to shipping their horses to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., a spa city that in pre-air conditioning days provided a hospitable respite for wealthy horse buyers in August.
Still, those breeders believed Lexington needed a track, and not just a second-string place to fill in between bigger, better meets, but a first-rate track.
This was the 1930s, a time when both optimism and capital were in short supply. The founders didn't go to a bank or one very wealthy individual, instead they developed a plan to sell shares locally to build "one of the outstanding racing centers of the country," according to the prospectus.
The Keeneland Association's articles of incorporation stipulate that profits go to purses, track improvements and local charities.
Sales came later when World War II travel restrictions made it hard to ship horses to Saratoga. Somewhat reluctantly, Keeneland held a sale that surprised by its success. That success has continued. The September Yearling Sale this year was the largest in the world, selling 2,921 Thoroughbreds, a large majority bred and raised in Central Kentucky, for a total of $223,487,800.
So, what lessons does Keeneland teach?
One is to take the long view.
The founders couldn't foresee a time when people around the world can tap a few numbers into a telephone to bet on races and buy horses at Keeneland, or when huge jets would fly into the airport across the road carrying buyers from distant lands. They probably never thought in 1935 that black people would sit in the clubhouse or that female jockeys would stand in the winner's circle.
But they did foresee that Lexington and the breeding industry would be well served in the long term by a quality track that could attract great horses, and fans, by reinvesting in purses and maintenance.
They also saw that Keeneland was part of the larger community and needed to contribute to it. Keeneland gifts of over $18 million have enriched medical and human services, education, the arts and a host of other causes since 1936. It's a lesson in corporate citizenship.
And, as tradition-bound as Keeneland can seem, the foray into a new market — sales — is a lesson in adaptability, even when things are going well. When opportunity knocks, be willing to open the door.
Finally, long before anyone talked about environmentalism or stewardship of the land, Keeneland's founders knew the Bluegrass was a special place that deserved the best.
Farmland preservation is about economics. Farmers only stay on the land if they can make a living producing and selling their products. Keeneland's long view helped make that possible for thousands of Thoroughbred breeders. And, for that, we are thankful.