Keeneland Race Course President and CEO Nick Nicholson took a few minutes last week to talk with the Herald-Leader with the track's Fall Meet scheduled to open on Friday. Following are excerpts from that interview:
Question: How challenging has it been for Keeneland to maintain its mission during some of the more trying economic times we've been dealing with?
Answer: "You're right, it's easier to do when everything is going great. It's harder to do in a time of recession like we've had. The only thing you can do is you have to start when you're doing your planning and budgeting. Have to start with what comes first. And what has to come first here is doing what is best for the horse and doing what is best for the industry. And those two thoughts almost always overlap and then you have just have to make it work around that principle so the budget is tougher. There are fewer people working here than there were two years ago. So the people that are here have all had to work harder and that's not to say that Keeneland is unique. The same thing is true with most other businesses in the country as well. But you have to do what you have to do as a business. But we've tried very hard to do what we have to do as a business and stay true to our philosophy and stay true to our core values. That to me is the essence of what Keeneland is all about."
Q: Have there been things you would have liked to see Keeneland move forward with that have had to go by the wayside?
A: "Yes there are. We'd like to be more aggressive with our racing program than we've been able to be. The purse program in many ways has sort of been on hold for two years. We have not done as much in the way of construction the last two years as I would have liked and that's just the reality and part of the example of having to figure out your core values and do what you can under these circumstances. The Keeneland meets have grown, the attendance is doing very well. And we want to continue to do things to make it pleasurable for people to have a good experience when they come out here. That is sort of the ball you have to keep your eye on. The place looks great, the grounds look wonderful, the team has done a great job getting the grounds ready and they've done it with fewer people so I've very proud of them."
Q: How do you keep your marquee races just that in the face of smaller field sizes and a continuously shrinking foal crop?
A: "That's a great question. It's a lot of hard work. We have a wonderful racing department and we spend a lot of time thinking about the condition book and what races should be in the condition book. We recruit stables that have horses that will fill that condition book. Sometimes it's the usual suspects and sometimes it's smaller trainers that have specific horses that will fit specific races. I think our team does a great job of trying to get those people to come to Keeneland. We try and put a real effort into making the owners of the horses have a good experience. We know if they have a 10-horse field, nine of them aren't going to win the race so our goal is to have the owner of the other nine feel like he had a nice day. Wishing he would have won but they were well treated by Keeneland so we put a lot of effort into hospitality for owners of horses and we hope that makes them want to come back. We try and have safe facilities, safe barn area so owners will know more of their horses will leave here healthy. We want the horses to thrive here and have that reputation that they thrive here. The trainers looking for top jockeys, we try and have a top jockey core so that is available to the owners and trainers. Also it's the fan base itself, I've had a lot of jockeys and trainers and owners say they love to win a race before this crowd because the crowd is so enthusiastic and appreciative of the sport of racing itself. It makes it special to win a race in front of this crowd. I wouldn't want to have to do this with any piece of that recipe missing. We don't take shortcuts. We try and fulfill each one of those without taking shortcuts."
Q: The potential ban on Lasix in juvenile races is set to go into effect next year. What kind of feedback have you gotten from horsemen and other Keeneland patrons on the issue?
A: "There are a lot of people thinking through it and I've gotten a lot of feedback. I think there are valid points on all sides of this. On the one hand the medication helps horses not bleed and that's on one side. On the other side, we want to have racing drug-free and there is merit to that case, too. Where we land, where the Keeneland board has landed on this is we'd like to head in the direction of having one international rule and the one international rule would encompass not only the types of drugs and regimens of dosage but also testing, a standard testing program and standard penalty program all over. Where penalties from one country would be recognized in other countries and the penalties would be similar offense in one country to another country. Lasix is part of that discussion. It probably is the No. 1 thing that separates us from the rest of the world. But I think the Lasix conversation should be in context with an international discussion where all sides compromise and all sides move together in the scientific area.
Q: Are you concerned about races like the Alcibiades and Breeders' Futurity losing their grades?
A: "No. We know nothing is going to happen this October. And the people who are on the GSC (Graded Stakes Committee) they care about the sport very much and I trust their judgment and they'll figure out what to do"
Q: If they move forward with the rule, is it an issue Keeneland would look at passing house rules about or come up with another way to determine graded stakes?
A: " I think our answer is we'll cross that bridge when we come it. It doesn't have anything to do with this October and we trust the people who are making these decisions. We trust that they'll come up with a program before its comes to the situation you describe."
Q: In addition to the Autumn at Keeneland programming on Versus and NBC, Keeneland recently forged an agreement with TVG to have them televise racing there in HD exclusively through 2016. How important is it for the sport to maintain not just a national presence, but a high quality national TV presence for the sport to keep making strides?
A: "I think it's one of the cornerstones of any modern sport. You have to have quality television and both those words are important. You have to be on television and you have to be on in a way that is presented in a manner that is comparable to what the sports fans see in other sports, and our entertainment value on TV has to be just as good as football or basketball and it should be and it can be. Certainly I'm very proud of the way Keeneland looks on TV. It's a beautiful setting and we want to take every opportunity to highlight central Kentucky, and I think when Keeneland is on national television, it's good for Central Kentucky as well as the Thoroughbred industry. It's a priority for us. We've been encouraging TVG to go HD for some years now and I'm glad that they are. I was glad to see them make the decision."