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Equine Industry Next Generation: Nick Nicholson, Jr.

Appeared in Business Lexington June 27, 2013
By Natalie Voss

Nick Nicholson, Jr., is an associate in the Stoll Keenon Ogden law offices in Lexington. He received his J.D. from the University of Kentucky in 2007, following graduation from Wake Forest University. His specialties include criminal law, construction and eminent domain, real estate and equine proceedings. His father is Nick Nicholson, Sr., former president and CEO of the Keeneland Association.

What do you think the biggest challenges are that face the racing industry right now?

We have three or four “biggest challenge” questions, depending on which day of the week it is and which group you’re part of, I’d say. In a very overarching way, though, we have to be able to get on the same page in the industry before we can compete with the other industries, which essentially are trying to steal the spotlight away from our national audience.

That competition can be split among different actual sports but also different gambling alternatives; so on one end, we’re competing with the World Series of Poker, and we’re also competing with NASCAR. Those are two very different kinds of competition forms, but for their individual entities, they are very united. Whether you’re dealing with different gambling websites or the France family that runs NASCAR, they are united. And we, unfortunately, are a fractured industry. But I say that with caution, because I don’t think we’re nearly as divided as we view ourselves to be.

Our generation has been told all of our lives that the horse industry is divided and we’ll never get on the same page, but if you stop and look at the opinions, whether it’s NYRA, Magna, Churchill Downs, or places like Del Mar and Keeneland, I think all of them are pretty much on the same page when it comes to the grand picture. It’s just the details that we are separated on. So our biggest problem is that we need to give off the appearance that we are completely united, and I think that’s possible to do.

What do you think is the best way to get people to at least appear to be on the same page?

Start with the topics on which we know we’re in agreement. We are all in agreement, for instance, that cheating is bad and is a major threat to us. The public will not stand for any appearance of cheating. And we have the additional problem that it’s not the actual athletes themselves that are cheating, it is people who are in control of the athletes — unlike, most recently, Lance Armstrong.

Everyone in the industry agrees that cheating is bad and medication needs to be regulated, and once again, it gets down to details of how we go about doing that. We [the various racing states] need to come to a consensus on what “cheating” means — which drugs constitute it, and at which levels.

The Jockey Club recently put forth guidelines [suggesting stricter regulation of substances and improved security on race day] that everyone in the industry could point toward and say, “This is what our rules are.” If we could all get on the same page, whether it’s through the Jockey Club’s suggestions or some variation of that, I think that would be a huge step in the right direction to appear united.

Once we handle an issue like medication, I think we’d find that we could come to agreement with other situations we need to handle, such as the tote system reformation, getting the national circuit aligned for the public. If we could get on the same page on one or two issues, we could start knocking the rest off in routine fashion.

How do you see the future of the horse industry, specifically in Kentucky, considering all the speed bumps that seem to be in its path these days?

There have been speed bumps lined up against the horse industry since there has been horse racing in America.

Yes, we can get by any of these types of recent speed bumps. A lot of them are self-created, and we can get past those. We saw this past year with the Triple Crown [at which Kentucky Derby attendance and handle hit an all-time record] that America wants to pay attention. We have to give them an easier way to pay attention.

Yes, we can get past it. As far as specifically Kentucky, we absolutely can. Kentucky has the best natural resources and the best professionals that apply to the horse industry. Yes, we are making it much harder for ourselves to compete nationally. There is no question on that. Luckily, we are buoyed by the fact that we offer the best product nationwide.

I have absolute confidence in the national future, and with that, the leader in racing, which is unquestionably Kentucky. If our industry has an extra $100 million lying around where we can subsidize purses like New York, it would only be better.

If you were the Racing Czar and could magically enact any one change that you wanted, what would you do?

I would like a contract with ESPN to create major league racing. We have a great product, and we’re not necessarily in the forefront of America’s mind. To get there, we need exposure — and we need to expose the right aspects.

We have a compelling product; we have to make it easier for the nation to follow our story. We’ve heard way too often that [to the general public] racing exists about three weeks before and after the Triple Crown. Those in the business know that summer racing [in the months after the final leg of the Crown] is some of the best that we have.

We have to get past the reality that the majority of horses run as three-year-olds only, but that doesn’t mean that the racing product itself dwindles. So we need a way that America stays informed.