John Nicholson: The Man Behind the Kentucky Horse Park

John Nicholson is President of the World Equestrian Games 2010 Foundation, an organization that was created to organize and conduct the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, the largest sporting event ever held in Kentucky, the Thoroughbred breeding capital of the world. He has also been the Executive Director of the Kentucky Horse Park since 1997.

When I sat down to chat with John Nicholson he did not reveal the emails he was reminding himself to respond to or the calls he needed to return. He never spoke of his next meeting or the tour of the grounds he was sure to take before the day was over. There was still much to do in what remained of the day but for the hour we spoke his focus was on our conversation. It gave me a chance to understand the man and his mission and devotion to the Kentucky Horse Park, a place that in 2008 had been honored with the esteemed Eclipse Award from the National Turf Writers Association and the Daily Racing Form.

John is President of the World Equestrian Games 2010 Foundation, an organization that was created to organize and conduct the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, the largest sporting event ever held in Kentucky, the Thoroughbred breeding capital of the world. That combined with being the Executive Director of the Kentucky Horse Park since 1997 means he always has a lot on his plate. While his KHP life has filled most of his career he did hold a few other positions, including serving as the Park’s Director of Operations from 1991 to 1994 and being the Horse Park’s Deputy Director in 1994. He was Director of Sales for the inaugural Equitana USA from 1994 to 1996 and was at one time President of the Kentucky Horse Council and Chairman of the Kentucky Horse Fair.

John feels that his position with Equitana catapulted his career. “I needed to go out and see the horse industry and that gave birth to WEG in a lot of ways because I was able to travel in Europe and find out what a great reputation KHP has.”

It was during that time that he started to think “Why couldn’t Kentucky host a World Games.   It was an idea I put forward when I came back to be Executive Director. In 2002 the Games went to Jerez because that was home to then FEI President Pilar. Then in 2006 Aachen got the Games.

“Aachen was able to create a standard that we plan to meet. Our goal is to also add on some wonderful new things because we recognize that the 2010 effort has to be greater and more sophisticated because of the standard that Aachen set.”

A Day in the Life of John Nicholson
While all of his career positions have required his full attention his present dual role is undoubtedly the most demanding of all, both emotionally and physically. John’s day is long and generally begins first thing in the morning driving around the Park. “Sometimes I will get up early and take a bicycle ride to get an idea of what is the flavor of the day.”

Knowing what the itinerary is for the day he’ll look for signs that everything is in the works. Are new arrivals moved in and settled in stalls and if there is an event going on is it happening. “There are usually one or two things that I will check on for that particular day.” While from time to time things may vary, nowadays his job definition is quite clear. “I am constantly looking at the construction projects.”

Once finished taking his morning tour Jon gathers at 8:30 with a few of the staff for their daily morning meeting to assess the situation. “We kick ideas back and forth and solve or identify problems and then once that is over my day turns into a whirlwind.”

During the day John admits that he tries to “carve out time to walk around. That used to be much easier but not so much now with the construction, excitement and increased demands,” especially since overseeing everything that happens at the Park is his job description. Yet, he’s learned it is team work that gets everything done.

“This is the kind of job where to be successful you have to be secure enough to rely on other people. I do my best to be effective at communicating expectations and allowing people to do their jobs but I also let them know that they will be supported and appreciated.”

As is the case everywhere, the economic downturn has caused for budget cuts and as a consequence “there are less people and consequently everybody that works here has a full plate. So we have to work hard not to get in each other’s way and it’s important that I allow people to succeed, meet their objectives and give them ownership of their projects. “

That has been especially important with the many demands created by the 2010 arrival of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games to the Kentucky Horse Park, which for John has been ten years in the making and always a dream of his. Yet dreams are what KHP is all about.

“WEG is reflective of the KHP in that we think big here and we want everybody not to think about their limitations but what is in the realm of possibility. It’s important not to find excuses of why we can’t do something but rather reasons why we can.”

Time and time again they have proven themselves right, even I am aware of this. Years ago before the then American Horse Shows Association was making the decision to uproot itself from New York and move to the KHP it seemed like a distant possibility.   “Their arrival helped stir the buzz nationally and internationally about the park,” explained John. Now the organization under its new name of United States Equestrian Federation has been joined by numerous other organizations that are also headquartered there.

“We think ahead and then organize a plan to entice and when the goal was to bring WEG to KHP we created a daunting presentation. There is no museum that could have done it better and that set the standard from this point forward. So, without a doubt this event needs to be and will be world class.”

Building a Life in Kentucky

Nicholson, who is recently divorced, was born on September 23, 1959. He has two boys, Chris 10 and Colin 6. At the moment he calls the KHP his home because that’s where his house is. His parents are both deceased but his mom, Peggy, and dad, Dr. G.E. Nicholson (an optometrist) have both left a legacy that he is determined to match.

“They were very active in their community, related well to people and both of them gave back. They had a strong sense of fairness and respect for other people that I learned from them. They were very positive about other people in the community,” he explained.

One memory that he doesn’t recall but often heard about from others happened when his father started his practice in the 1950s.  “My dad tore down the railing that was separating blacks and whites, which was revolutionary for those times.” In the later years, Nicholson recalls his dad giving free eye exams as part of the Head Start program.

While he is surrounded by horses now all of the time, in his youth he never rode but he did have contact with horses when he was around 10-years-old. “The horse part of my youth came from my father’s best friend Bill O’Neill, who was the manager of Bwamazon Farm, a Thoroughbred Racing operation in Clark County. It was close enough where I could ride my bike to the farm and I became enamored with the horses. I knew the name of every mare that was there and I knew the entire racing stable and how they were doing it.   I was happy just being around the horses and understanding the process of what happens in making a racehorse. “

That went on for years but then as a teenager other things drew his attention “but that horse fire was always within me. I even entertained being a farm manager at one time,” he admitted.   But it wasn’t until he took the job at the KHP that horses reentered his life and this time in a new way. John occasionally rides around the Park for relaxation and pleasure.

His two sons are the most important people in his life, although at times he recognizes that he has to find the delicate balance between being a dad and being their friend. “But being a father is the most important job I will ever have. They have enriched my life a great deal.”

John started his parental role later than most. He was 40 years old and “now at 49 they have kept me much younger. They are the source of most of the laughter I have in life,” he commented.

It is his two brothers who have influenced him the most: Nick, who holds the well-regarded title of president of the Keeneland Association and Joe Browne, who is the president of Nicholson Insurance. “They are 9 and 12 years older than I and it was as if I had two sets of parents but they were my cool parents. Sometimes the cool example they set wasn’t what his real parents would have approved of but to him they were awesome.  

“They were poker players,” he admits, “and because of that I always wanted to be a good poker player, but I never succeeded.”  While poker wasn’t the ideal role model his parents would have wanted for him, there are numerous other examples that he has benefitted from, which includes “their reputation for integrity. I feel that people believe me to be a person of integrity because of my brothers and my parents and it is important I live up to that.   My parents had a wonderful reputation in Winchester because they treated people with care and were involved in the community.”

John and Nick talk often. “I bounce things off of Nick. I learn from how he manages the Keeneland racecourse and I learn something every time we speak. I’ve taken a lot of his approaches and apply them here, such as the profile Keeneland has gained and the idea of making Keeneland a good citizen of the community. The KHP wants to have that same reputation and wants to be a real asset to the community.”

The Highs and Lows of John's Life

In life we have both highs and lows and for each one of us those peaks are personal. For John the emotional high point is his children.  In business it was being awarded the World Equestrian Games. “That was the culmination of a vision that I wanted for the KHP. Not just for the 16 days but I knew it would signal a rebirth of the Park. It would have been difficult if we hadn’t had the urgency of the World Games to make the improvements we have made, but now with the Games on the horizon the improvements are coming in great rapidity.”

Each step in that process is a high point for John, from the building of the new stadium to the unveiling of the new indoor arena. “Pretty soon one project after another is going to be completed,” he noted. “Now the focus of looking into the future is very clear.”

But while John is psyched about all that is happening he is honest and admits that it’s been very stressful.   “The reality of a marriage that was going bad combined with bringing the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Gameshere has produced a lot of stress, especially initially. That was not a good time and I had to rely on a lot of patience in addition to the support of all of my friends.”

John admits that he has “a very strong emotional attachment to the people I work with especially because they helped me get through those rough spots and it’s not over yet. I feel the wind at my back now but am thankful for the support and friendship that I have. We graduated here from being a good team to being a close knit family. Everybody who works here is my hero. “

With so much happening in his life you wonder if John hopes for a less stressful and quieter time and you’d be right. “I am looking forward to having some normalcy and consistency in both my public and private life,” he reveals.   “To have this wonderful explosion of activity is exciting but it’s getting to the point where I need to go from a breathless gallop to a nice canter and I am looking forward to post WEG when my life won’t be so hysterical.”

While at the moment there isn’t much time for John, he does admit to being an Andy Griffith fanatic and watches all the reruns. “I think they are like Shakespeare as far as the wisdom.” John also loves American History. If I didn’t do what I’m doing now, my dream job would be as a history professor.
John also enjoys Classic Rock & Roll because “It makes you feel younger.” And in his house the only TV programs he watches are CNN and the history channel.

With his kids he spends time throwing lots of baseballs, taking part in whatever the sport of the season is or watching them play school sports. In addition to that, John loves “to take them to the movies. I haven’t seen anything other than a G movie in 5 years.” And there are some “wiggles” in their lives as well, or to be accurate, Mr. Wiggles is what they call their cat.

Yet it is the time they spend having conversations that he enjoys most and they do a lot of that, especially during the four day stretches when they stay with him for long weekends. “We do a lot of talking when we are together,” he notes.

While it was clear that John preferred not to talk about himself and even admitted at one point, “I am uncomfortable talking about myself. It is counter intuitive,” how are we to get to know the man unless he is willing to do just that and so after a moment of silence he responded to one of my final questions thoughtfully. I asked him who John Nicholson is.

“I would like to think that I am a good copy or a reasonable reflection of the values of my parents and a good citizen of humanity,” he commented. John wants to be assured that people know that he truly cares about them and while these are visions he hopes he has achieved there are things he’d like to change.

“I obsess and worry about things more than I should and I need to find ways to be less harsh on myself,” he reveals. In fact John labels himself as a “stressaholic,” who has only very occasionally allowed himself to let things go.  “Even if I am away from the Horse Park I don’t stop thinking about it. When things go wrong inevitably I internalize it.   In my mind I am questioning why I allowed this to fail or what did I do wrong? I am my hardest critic.”

Yet, John finds solace in spending time with his kids and focusing on his love for American history. “I do a lot of reading about very successful Americans who were all quite imperfect.”

We had talked for quite some time now and John had meetings to attend and promises to keep and so I asked him one last question. I wanted to know what he would tell someone who wanted to walk in his shoes.

“It’s all about relationships,” he admitted.  “It’s not just about what you know but also how you treat other people. The ability to work well with others is equally paramount. Competence is important but without the skills to deal in an organization all the knowledge in the world is useless,” he concluded.