As the spring racing meet was about to begin, Keeneland President Nick Nicholson briskly walked the grounds to make sure everything was ready.
At the track’s last turn, he inspected the yellow forsythia hedge and tall magnolia trees. (He knows there are exactly 73 of them.) He pointed out new bushes in the infield that look as if they have always been there, and a maple tree in the paddock that won’t thrive no matter what the groundskeepers do.
Nicholson drove a visitor to the back of the racecourse’s 1,200 acres, to a nursery where trimmed shrubs stand ready should any part of the green hedges that spell “Keeneland” in the infield suddenly turn brown.
“You’re looking at the next generation of the parking lot there,” he said, pointing to a row of tall trees in the nursery. They are gradually being moved out to the parking lot to replace the giant pin oaks as they succumb to age and insects.
What does this obsession with landscaping have to do with horse racing and Kentucky’s Thoroughbred industry? Everything, Nicholson believes.
That’s because the future of the horse industry that is so vital to Kentucky’s image and economy depends on developing a larger, younger and more loyal fan base. Nicholson thinks the years-long battle over expanded gambling has distracted the industry from that fundamental issue.
“Expanded gaming has taken on more of a role than I think it should have; I would love to think of a way to get it behind us,” he said. “It will never be a long-term fix or a total solution. It would just provide some capital at a time when the industry needs capital. It’s a means to an end. It’s not the end.”
Horse racing once flourished, in part, because it was the only way many people could gamble legally. Now there are plenty of quicker and cheaper ways, including lotteries, slot machines, Internet betting and casinos. Everyone wants in on the action, including politicians eager to avoid raising taxes.
“I often feel like a ping-pong ball in other people’s ping-pong games,” Nicholson said.
Unlike corporate racetracks, whose ultimate goal is to provide shareholders with a maximum return on investment, Keeneland is a non-profit association. Since its founding in 1936, the mission has been to support Kentucky’s Thoroughbred breeding industry through racing and sales to an increasingly international market.
“It’s the marketplace where the farmers bring their crop to market,” he said. “The reason we race is to determine which horses to breed to which horses.”
The income and jobs the horse industry provides Kentucky — from breeders and blacksmiths to restaurant waiters and equine artists — ultimately depend on the popularity of horses and racing, Nicholson said. That’s why he spends much of his time on efforts to improve racing’s credibility, from the integrity of the betting system to improved safety for horses and riders.
“For the new fan base we’ll build the sport on, safety is a threshold issue,” he said. “You can’t say (frequent death and injury) is part of the sport anymore. You’ve got to be doing everything you can do to prevent it.”
That means cracking down on horse doping and investing in such things as artificial track surfaces that are easier on horses’ legs and high-tech padding in the starting gate.
Growing horse racing’s fan base means providing a total entertainment experience — everything from exciting sport to good food, comfortable seats, beautiful landscaping, easy parking and friendly customer service.
During an orientation last Wednesday for some of the hundreds of green-jacketed retirees who work customer-service jobs at each racing meet, Nicholson told them: “You’re the secret ingredient in the recipe for what makes Keeneland special.”
To appeal to potential young fans, horse racing must market itself more creatively and embrace technology. Keeneland now has new season and annual passes, live online race video, race replays for cell phones and updates for both experienced and novice fans via SMS text, Twitter and Facebook.
Discreet remote-control television cameras have been installed in the paddock, and there’s a new TV camera platform behind the winner’s circle. “We want to create more of a Game Day atmosphere,” Nicholson said. “We’d like each meet to be like an international festival.”
The TVG network will have daily coverage from Keeneland this month. Churchill Downs in Louisville has partnered with NBC Sports for “Road to the Kentucky Derby” telecasts that will include Keeneland’s Bluegrass Stakes on April 10.
The future of the Thoroughbred industry, Nicholson believes, depends on attracting more fans who become passionate about horses, not just about gambling. It’s about the pageantry and excitement of the sport, the intellectual challenge of handicapping, the thrill of betting a winner and the pleasure of an afternoon with friends in a beautiful place that looks as if it has always been there.
“More days of cheap racing won’t do it,” he said. “We must work with like-minded tracks to create an appealing product. We can’t compete with a casino, nor should we want to.”