The year 2019 was rough for horse racing fans and those who make a living from the game.
The large number of equine fatalities at Santa Anita Park in the past year and the controversial disqualification of the Kentucky Derby winner Maximum Security cast a shadow over the racing industry.
Racing has little margin for error because of the fierce competition for discretionary money – especially gaming money. Many tracks across the country struggle to attract and retain new fans.
On a personal level, 2019 was also a rough year in regards to racing. After some initial good fortune, including winning two races at Saratoga Race Course with my partners, the reality of the challenges of racing caught up to me. For the past four years, my investment in racing has been on breeding a mare.
After a miscarriage, our mare finally produced a foal in March 2017. The foal was sired by the Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned. This young horse had me dreaming of a champion or at least earning some money back on the track. Unfortunately, after four years of veterinarian bills, shipping bills, farm bills and ultimately training bills, our 2-year-old horse was injured and had to move on to a second career without ever running in a race.
My love for racing extends beyond ownership to include writing articles on the sport for publications, selling ads for The Saratoga Special and The RacingBiz, creating an active Twitter account (@kokhorseracing) which has nearly 2,200 followers and serving on the Race For Education and the KEEP Foundation boards in Kentucky. Despite the challenges and frustrations I, and many in the racing industry encountered in 2019, horse racing is still alive in 2020.
Just when I thought I had exhausted my avenues for advocating and promoting horse racing, I was fortunate to be able to take time from my law and government relations practice in Maryland to work as a “Green Coat” usher during last year’s fall meeting Keeneland Race Course.
Working at Keeneland allowed me to be a front-line participant at one of the world’s best racing venues.
Keeneland has set the standard for Thoroughbred racing and sales since 1936. Each day and each race is a special event at Keeneland. It is an old school place in the best sense of the word where the “sport of kings” is on full display.
For example, to be in the clubhouse requires a strict dress code including having your tie straight at all times. I learned this lesson back in 2011 when as a guest I was gently chided for having a loosened tie. The management works to ensure that the traditions are maintained and that all attendees are treated like VIPs.
The management of Keeneland meets with all full-time and temporary employees to show how all of us are part of a great team. Every morning the Keeneland team is given a one-page sheet of the day’s events to ensure that the fan experience is top notch. The Keeneland staff takes great pride in creating an unforgettable day for its fans. The Keeneland fan experience is worth traveling hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles.
At my first employee orientation, the returning employees and new employees heard directly from Keeneland President and CEO Bill Thomason, who made each of us feel that we play an integral role in making Keeneland a success.
For anyone who is skeptical about the viability of Thoroughbred racing I would invite them to experience Keeneland first-hand. I left my stint as a Keeneland usher with a renewed desire to promote Thoroughbred racing and to start another racing partnership.
And if you find yourself at Keeneland in spring, please look for Kevin in the green coat.