Kentucky Horse Park executive director John Nicholson, who guided the park's bid for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, announced Wednesday that he is retiring effective April 30.
"With our recent 35th anniversary, I started to think about my own history with the park and all that we have accomplished during this tenure," Nicholson said in a statement. "It has been a difficult decision to consider retirement because I love the park and highly value the team of people I work with, but after 17 years, this is the right time for the park and for me personally. I am looking forward to exploring new opportunities. I leave knowing that the park is now a serious and relevant player in equestrian sport around the world, and that it provides an international calling card for Kentucky, not just in attracting and hosting major events, but also acting as an important cultural and economic driver for the Commonwealth."
Nicholson, 53, has been in the post since 1997 and is the longest-serving director in the park's 35-year history, overseeing tremendous growth. The Kentucky Horse Park Commission, chaired by Alston Kerr, will search for his replacement.
In a statement, Gov. Steve Beshear thanked Nicholson for his "hard work and devotion to the Commonwealth."
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"His leadership has made the horse park an international destination for visitors across the globe," Beshear said. "As president of its foundation, he helped make the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games a tremendous success for Kentucky. We wish him all the best in the next chapter of his life."
The Games, which are the world championships for eight equestrian disciplines, had never been held outside of Europe. Nicholson served on the board of the World Games 2010 Foundation, which organized the event. It had an economic impact of $201.5 million on the state's economy.
Nicholson said Wednesday that Kentucky's pending bid for the 2018 World Equestrian Games will be unaffected; the host location will be announced later this year.
Nicholson leaves the park larger and better equipped, with $80 million in capital improvement projects, including the 5,500-seat Alltech Arena; the 7,300-seat Rolex Stadium; new stabling barns; a new $10 million, 8,500-square-foot museum wing; and numerous new buildings within the park's National Horse Center.
Nicholson also helped save the historic Calumet Farm trophy collection from a bankruptcy auction: One of his first actions as the park's executive director was helping raise more than $1.2 million from the public, and securing $1.5 million in state funding, to buy the trophies and give them a permanent home.