Kentucky Horse Park executive director to retire

Published on: Jan 15, 2014

John Nicholson, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Park since June 1, 1997, has announced his retirement, effective April 30. Nicholson is the longest-serving executive director of the Kentucky Horse Park in its 35-year history, and has served at its helm during its greatest period of growth - garnering world-wide recognition for the facility.

Under Nicholson's leadership, the Kentucky Horse Park has a long list of notable achievements, crowned by the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Nicholson spearheaded a multi-year effort by the Kentucky Horse Park, the Commonwealth of Kentucky, local government and private partnerships to win the United States' bid to host the World Equestrian Games. 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, televised internationally to 500 million viewers, and had an economic impact of $201.5 million on the state's economy.

The Kentucky Horse Park has been steadily transformed into the finest equestrian competition facility in the world. Nicholson has overseen its expansion to include $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 - a collection of national, regional and state equine organizations.

Nineteen of the current 33 National Horse Center tenants have relocated their national headquarters to the park or expanded their offices during Nicholson's tenure, including the governing body for most equestrian sport in the country, the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF). Formerly known as the American Horse Shows Association, the USEF completed a move to the Kentucky Horse Park in 1999 after being recruited away from New York City, where it had resided since being founded there in 1917. This move was a major development within the equestrian world, and the organization's presence at the park was an important factor for the incredible growth of the number and quality of horse shows and competitions at the park, for tenants in the National Horse Center, and for Kentucky securing the bid to host the World Equestrian Games in 2010.

In addition to growing the park, Nicholson has concentrated on improving its public perception and increasing private sector support. One of his first actions as the park's executive director was playing a major role in raising more than $1.2 million from concerned citizens and racing fans, and securing an additional $1.5 million in state funding, to purchase the historic Calumet Farm trophy collection in 1998. The collection had been on loan to the park's International Museum of the Horse since 1982, but was scheduled to be auctioned as part of the farm's bankruptcy settlement. 

 In 1997, the park was presented with an opportunity to host one of the largest exhibitions ever to come to the United States from China. Stipulating that no tax dollars would be used to fund the project, Nicholson led efforts in raising the necessary $1.2 million from the private sector to fund the exhibition, valued at $100 million.  Imperial China: The Art of the Horse in Chinese History" opened in 2000 and was seen by more than 200,000 visitors. 

One of the most significant international cultural events in the history of the Commonwealth, the exhibition helped increase economic ties between Kentucky and China through a major trade conference that was attended by the Chinese Ambassador. It also ushered in a remarkable decade that, under Nicholson's leadership, saw the park produce two more exceptional international exhibitions, "All the Queen's Horses," in 2003, and "A Gift from the Desert," in 2010.

In 2008, Nicholson's leadership led to the park receiving an Eclipse Award, the highest honor in the Thoroughbred industry, from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, National Turf Writers Association, and the Daily Racing Form. In 2010, he received the prestigious Equine Industry Vision Award from the American Horse Publications, an award that recognizes outstanding leadership, creativity and meritorious contributions in the equine industry, and he accepted the USEF's Sallie Busch Wheeler Trophy on behalf of the park, which honors distinguished service in equestrian sport. In 2011, Nicholson was named one of the Chronicle of the Horse magazine's "Overall Horsemen of the Year." 

Nicholson began his career with the state in 1984, working for Kentucky State Parks. He left Parks in 1991 and joined the Kentucky Horse Park as deputy director and, among other things, worked to bring together various breed associations to found the Kentucky Horse Fair. He was active in the establishment of the Kentucky Horse Council, serving as that organization's president in 1994. Nicholson  was the director of sales for Blenheim Group U.S.A. Inc., the producers of Equitana U.S.A., from 1994-1996, but returned to the park in his former position until he was named executive director in 1997, replacing Lee Cholak, who had served in that role since 1985.

Nicholson has served on many boards of directors, including the Bluegrass Hospitality Association, Bluegrass Sports Commission, Bluegrass Tomorrow, Commerce Lexington, Fayette Alliance, Kentucky Farm Bureau Equine Advisory Committee, Midway College Sports Management Advisory Committee, and ex officio for VisitLEX.