John Clay: Keeneland president views Breeders' Cup as opportunity for innovation

Bill Thomason, president of Keeneland spoke during a press conference to announce Breeders' Cup Festival Week events at Cheapside Park in Lexington, Ky., on June 8, 2015. The events will include nightly live music. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
Bill Thomason, president of Keeneland spoke during a press conference to announce Breeders' Cup Festival Week events at Cheapside Park in Lexington, Ky., on June 8, 2015. The events will include nightly live music. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff Lexington Herald-Leader

The clock is ticking.

There are less than six weeks until the Breeders' Cup comes to our very own Keeneland Race Course on Oct. 30 and 31, but if you think Bill Thomason's existence these days is a harried and difficult one, you don't know Keeneland's president and chief executive officer.

"This business is anticipation anyway," said Thomason last week, in his office inside the historic facility off Versailles Road. "From my previous life in what I was doing, breeding horses, being on the patron side of things, so much of what is special about this business is the anticipation of what's coming."

In that previous life, Thomason worked 28 years at Mill Ridge Farm where he was financial and administrative manager. He experienced the anticipation of planning the breeding, raising the foals, bringing them to the sales, getting them to the racetrack.

"If you love this business and you're passionate about it," Thomason said, "it makes it so interesting and so much fun."

Make no mistake, planning for the Breeders' Cup's first visit to Lexington has been fun — and exhilarating and exhausting and even eye-opening. Keeneland isn't just looking to late October. It believes the imprint of the Breeders' Cup will last well beyond that.

"What we talked about, let's not look at this like we're just doing one event," Thomason said. "Let's make sure that as we're doing our planning, we're not forgetting that Keeneland has a long, storied history of innovation."

In the planning process, Thomason said Keeneland has focused on things that will enhance both the track and the fan experience in the long run.

"Let's learn from it, as well," he said. "And let's find those things that we can come out of this Breeders' Cup ... even better in the future."

What are those things? We'll see. Maybe it's ticket distribution. Maybe it's the transportation plans. Maybe it has to do with food services. Maybe it has to do with the new chalets built by the saddling area of the paddock and along the stretch.

"We've always been the kind of place that will try anything. It's just what we do," Thomason said. "Some work and some don't work. The ones that work, we build on them, we develop them, we expand them. This is giving the opportunity to put 10 years' worth of those experiences into one day or into three days, which is what we're doing."

Any visitor to the grounds over the past few months would be hard-pressed not to notice the whirlwind of construction projects and activity.

Thomason said everything is on schedule. He reports that the transportation plan — a key question for a track smaller than most of the venues that have played host to the event — has been well-received since its announcement. He thinks the ticket distribution and buying process has gone well. He has been gratified by the corporate and community response and involvement.

Thomason said he is very happy with the new structures, especially the chalets and the way they have been incorporated into Keene-land's ambiance.

"Every one of them looks like they fit," he said. "They look like they belong here."

That's important. Among the things that make Keene-land special are its scenery and tradition. As Thomason points out, there is already a certain visitor expectation about Keeneland. The bar is always high. Now add the Breeders' Cup on to that.

"This is a special Breeders' Cup coming to a special place," he said simply.

These days, it is a very busy place. The September sales are ongoing — "What we're doing right now is the most important thing we do for our breeding industry," Thomason said — while the new simulcast facility at the Red Mile is opening. Plus, by the way, the October racing meet starts Oct. 2.

"From the 14th of September — and it started way before that — until this wonderful holiday of Thanksgiving, which for everybody here on the Keeneland team is well-named, it's seven days a week," Thomason said. "But everybody's doing it. I fully understand that I'm not working any harder than every other single member of this team."

And yet, Thomason is the one in charge. The 1977 UK graduate was named Keene-land's seventh president and chief executive officer on Sept. 1, 2012. On the final weekend of October, his track will be the host of the biggest Thoroughbred racing event in its history.

Does he feel any special responsibility because of that? Of course he does. But so does everyone who works there.

"It's not about me," Bill Thomason said. "I've got 2,000 people standing with me."