After 13 years guiding one of the more celebrated operations in the industry, Nick Nicholson is retiring as president of Keeneland effective Sept. 1. In the second and final part of an interview he gave to the Herald-Leader, Nicholson shares his views on some of Thoroughbred racing's hot-button topics and re-emphasizes the direction he'd like the industry to go.
Question: One could argue a lot of the issues within the industry you mentioned could be worked through if we had uniformity in this sport. How disappointing is it to see the industry not come together and, realistically, will that happen any time soon?
Answer: "That's a question that hits very close to me because I've been chasing that for literally 30 years. I'm probably the only person in the industry that was working in the U.S. Senate when the Interstate Horseracing Act passed. So I met all these issues from the side of government and I remember the evolution of that bill very well. Here's what I feel right now: we are very hard on ourselves. Most of the people in the industry hold themselves to very high standards and we're also very opinionated. People that are attracted to Thoroughbred racing are opinionated, they have a lot of opinions and they're fond of them. And the combination of those two personality traits don't lend themselves well to compromise. So we emphasize the areas we're apart. Maybe it's because I've been where I am right now in my faith. but in the last month or so I've done a lot of perspective thinking. Let's take the drug rules. We are closer to uniformity in drug rules than we have ever been as an industry. I started before Lasix was used, before clenbuterol came on. When I started in this industry, none of those drugs were involved. And our drug rules were much further apart than they are now. And our labs are really much better than they've ever been. So we are closer to uniformity than we're willing to admit, and we need to have that perspective that this thing is not a disaster. Every day horses race at Keene land they are tested for more than a 1,000 drugs. They are tested for more than 1,000 drugs in amounts we didn't know existed 20 years ago. We've made a lot of progress. If we could figure out a Lasix policy, then pretty much all the rest we're very close on. I think that in many ways, clenbuterol is a more important drug to regulate in a stricter manner now than Lasix is. But Lasix to me is a classic example of a situation that has competing truths. There are very good reasons that a reasonable, objective person could understand the use of Lasix. There are humane reasons to use it and there are athletic reasons to use it. And there are also good reasons that we need to regulate the use of it and there are good reasons why our athletes should not perform under the influence of drugs on race day. They're equally true. So what's difficult for us as an industry is to have the maturity to respect the other person's opinion and if I had one wish on the way out, it's let's respect one another's opinion a little bit and work our way through this issue. If we can come up with a reasonable path for Lasix and learn from each step on the path and readjust, once we do that, the quest for uniformity is much closer than anyone realizes. But we can't just beat each other up because someone has a different opinion on Lasix than you do. The weakening of the breed is a valid concern, but you can deal with those concerns if you regulate races at the top level and let the day-to-day races go on with it while you learn from these others and are able to make progress. The Jockey Club has a recommendation, and there are two things about it I really like. They have named 26 drugs and said let's come up with a finite amount of medication that accomplish what needs to be accomplished and those are the only drugs that can be used. Then you can come up with a single national rule under that and it's also much easier to test for because anything else you find in a horse is illegal, and I like that. And the second thing they have that I really like is a points system for owners and trainers where you get so many points for this infraction and this infraction, and so many points is so much time off and you can get your arm around a uniform penalty phase.
Q: It goes without saying the impact of the Keeneland sales. What has the rise of the commercial marketplace over the decades had on the industry as a whole?
A: "It has created jobs. It is a real economic engine in a way that did not exist two generations ago. It has allowed for entrepreneurship and many businesses to start. We set out about 10 years ago or so to go to smaller countries, emerging markets, not just to depend on England, Ireland and France and go around the globe. In doing so, we were hopefully creating something that would lessen the lows. What we gambled on is if we could get people to come here and buy once, they would have a good experience. We hold ourselves to high levels of fairness, we knew they were going to be treated fairly here, but we also gambled that they would like what they saw with the rest of Central Kentucky. Over the last 7-10 years, as these people from foreign countries came here, they have indeed liked what they saw and they have formed relationships inside the industry, relationships with farms. The economic impact of the sales being here is much broader than the dollar volume of the sales because there are hundreds of people who have relationships with each foreign entity that comes here and that translates to a lot of economic impact. What that carries with that is a responsibility to the community, and we know that by running the Keeneland sales operation we're having a responsibility not only to the people selling the horses, but to all these people in these ancillary industries inside the industry and outside the industry. Every person that comes in from a foreign country has to stay somewhere, has to eat somewhere, has to get transportation around. So there is inside the industry and outside the industry, the economic impact of sales.
Q: You've pointed out how Keeneland puts the horse first and Polytrack has been part of that. As the debate over synthetic tracks goes on, does it give you satisfaction that you made the right call when you pull up those (breakdown) numbers?
A: "Sure it does. There is no question that this is a safer racetrack than we've had before. There is no question as the national numbers come in, the synthetic numbers on breakdowns or career-ending injuries either way you count it are better than dirt. That has become increasingly clear and that will continue. You've never heard me say every track should be synthetic and I don't believe that. I think the worst thing that happened to the synthetic racing movement is California mandating that they go. It's tough to do these things and you have to have everyone on the same page and you have to have standards. And when California mandated all those tracks so quickly without any standards at all, you had tracks that took shortcuts, so they weren't as good. This is not going to be an overnight fix. The industry needs a laboratory for a safer racing surface. We can't treat racehorses the way some of these racetracks are, and we shouldn't tolerate it. This is a journey with no final victories because wherever you are, you have to get better. I'm not saying this is the end racetrack of all but I am saying that it is among the safest tracks in the country. This casual fan base wants to not see horses fall in front of them, and we've been able to do that particularly in April. There is nothing in the history of American racing like the last six April race meets. Does it mean we should quit trying? That every track should be like this? Of course not. My personal opinion is when we put it in and Barbaro and Eight Belles happened, it was golden. Then the pendulum has gone back the other way, you have some high-profile trainers who aren't around it long enough to figure out how to train on it and a lot of the California folks and high-profile New York folks have not embraced it. My guess is the pendulum will start swinging back the other way because the numbers are separating themselves. There is a difference in dirt, turf and synthetic, and the turf and synthetic are safer. We should not as an industry ignore that fact because it's an inconvenient truth. If you care about riders and you care about horses you have to continue on the journey of safer racing surfaces. This is not subject to the whim of a few people, including me. It's an industry responsibility. Does that mean we have to continue to make better dirt tracks? Sure. Shame on us that we haven't done it for 50 years. Nobody wants to write about it, I get it. Whoever writes about it now is outside the flow of mainstream journalism. But none of that changes the fact the people responsible for this sport have to be responsible for the riders and the horses. The horses can't make the decisions. We say what drugs go in them, we say what surfaces they race on. I'm very proud of being way out on a limb on those issues.
Q: When Keeneland does its 100th anniversary book, what do you want the last few lines of your chapter to say?
A: "He tried hard, he listened to different people, he didn't feel like he had to be obsessively right all the time and he always did what he felt was in the best interest of the horse and the industry."